This area will cover relevant news of the threat to the planet from Near Earth Objects (NEOs) including concepts and designs for mitigation. All opinions are those of the author.

12 March 2009

NEO News (03/12/09) UN Report on NEO Threat Mitigation

From Dave Morrison.

NEO News (03/12/09) UN Report on NEO Threat Mitigation

The Association of Space Explorers (made up of astronauts and cosmonauts) has been working with a distinguished international panel of experts to develop the foundations for a UN-based agreement on asteroid threat mitigation. This panel (organized and chaired by Rusty Schweickart) completed in late 2008 a recommended decision program to aid the international community in organizing a coordinated response to asteroid impact threats. These recommendations have been disseminated in the past three months within the UN. Rusty reports that the report has been favorably received, follow-on internal documents are in editing, and the work is incorporated in the approved 3-year work-plan for the UN committee on peaceful uses of outer space. Below is the summary section of that report and a link to a pdf of the entire document.

David Morrison


Russell L. Schweickart
Chairman, Committee on Near-Earth Objects
Association of Space Explorers
Sonoma, California


The Association of Space Explorers Committee on Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and its Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation have prepared a decision program to aid the international community in organizing a coordinated response to asteroid impact threats. The program is described in the ASE's report, Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response, which will be considered by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in its 2009 sessions. The findings and recommendations of this report are presented here as well as some of the major implications of the complex decision-making involved in developing a coordinated international response to the challenge of protecting the Earth from NEO impacts.


In its 2009 sessions the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS) will be presented with a decision program on asteroid threat mitigation developed over a two year period by the Association of Space Explorersi (ASE), the international organization of astronauts and cosmonauts from 34 nations. The program was developed by the ASE Committee on Near-Earth Objects (ASE-NEO) and its Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation, a distinguished international group of experts in science, law, diplomacy, and disaster management.

The ASE effort was initiated during its 2005 Congress when the members took note of the series of international disasters which had occurred that year (especially the Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricanes
Katrina and Rita, and the Pakistani earthquake) and the recognition of the critical role of preparation and warning in saving lives. Being also aware of the devastation caused by NEO impacts with Earth, the accelerating discovery rate of NEOs and the emerging technical capability (with adequate early warning) to divert such NEOs from impacting Earth, the Association realized the need for systematic preparation for this eventuality by the international community.

Recognizing the significance of this need the ASE issued an open letter to world institutions and leaders calling on them to "acknowledge this challenge and accept the responsibility for prevention of these most devastating of all natural disasters." To support such efforts ASE created an ASE-NEO committee and charged it with supporting "national and international responses by providing relevant information, organizing meetings or workshops, and providing expert witnesses." In 2006 the ASE-NEO committee, utilizing the ASE's Observer status in UN/COPUOS, assumed membership on Action Team-14 (NEO) of COPUOS and initiated an effort to develop a decision program on asteroid deflection for consideration by the international community. To support this effort ASE-NEO formed its international Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation and initiated a series of four workshops to develop this program.

The result of this effort is the report, Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response, currently in process by Action Team-14 for introduction to COPUOS in its 2009 sessions.


Our highly interconnected society is vulnerable to the destructive power of impact events ranging from the 1908 Tunguska event in which the impact of an estimated 45 meter diameter object destroyed 2000 square kilometers of Siberian forest to the 12 kilometer diameter object responsible for the Chicxulub impact 65 million years ago which is thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and 70% of all species alive at the time. Such cosmic collisions occur infrequently juxtaposed with a human lifetime, and yet when they do happen they dwarf other natural disasters more common in human experience.

Yet surprisingly in the instance of this most devastating of natural disasters we are far from helpless. With our telescopic and spaceflight capabilities we can detect and predict potential impacts, and with adequate early warning we can deploy space systems capable of altering the orbit of threatening NEOs sufficient to cause them to pass harmlessly by the Earth thereby avoiding an impact.

In the event of a discovery where insufficient time is available to successfully divert a threatening NEO we will nevertheless, if prepared, be able to mitigate the effects of an impact by evacuation and other disaster preparedness measures. What is needed to match the technical capability for responding to the NEO impact challenge is an in-place international system of preparation, planning and timely decision-making. The need for attention to this issue now by the international community is driven by the rapid expansion of the number of NEOs which will be discovered and tracked in the next 10-15 years, and the inherent geographic variability associated with impact prediction and deflection operations.

New telescopic resources coming into service within the next decade will dramatically increase the number of NEOs discovered and tracked. The US Congress has charged NASA with discovering and tracking 90% of all NEOs larger than 140 meters in diameter by 2020. While meeting this goal poses a considerable challenge, it is clear that with new telescopes coming online (e.g. Pan-STARRS and LSST) this goal will be approached in the 2020-2025 time-frame. In the process of achieving the 140 meter goal many smaller but still dangerous NEOs will be discovered with the number of such objects likely to exceed 300,000.

Based on current empirical experience the number of potentially damaging NEOs with a non-zero probability of impact within the next 100 years is likely to exceed 10,000 by this time. Of these NEOs with at least a small probability of impact over the next 100 years many are likely to appear threatening enough to necessitate a decision of whether action should be taken to prevent an impact. The need for international coordination in making such a decision is determined by the natural uncertainty regarding which specific populations are at risk in predicting an impact and the inherent shifting of risk in the process of deflection.

All measurements have an associated uncertainty and in the instance of NEO observations these measurement uncertainties, projected forward in time, manifest as a risk corridor across the face of the Earth within which, if it impacts, the NEO will hit. While in the end an impact would occur at a specific point, at the time a decision must be made to deflect a threatening object the impact zone will extend for some distance along the risk corridor and, in fact, in many instances may well extend beyond the Earth's limbs for many Earth diameters in both directions. Hence, at the time a deflection decision must be made (to provide adequate time to conduct the operation and for the deflection to take effect) it is likely that the people of many nations will be at risk. Furthermore in the process of deflection per se, there will be a temporary shifting of risk between populations as the NEO impact point is itself shifted from a point on the Earth's surface to a safe distance along the risk corridor either ahead of or behind the Earth.

Because NEO impacts can occur anywhere on our planet and affect the entire international community, a collaborative, global response is required. Furthermore it is highly desirable that a decision process, with agreed criteria, policies and procedures be established prior to the development of a specific threat in order to assure that minimization of risk to life and property prevail over competing national self interests.


A global, coordinated response by the United Nations to the NEO impact hazard should ensure that three logical, necessary functions are performed:
Information Gathering, Analysis, and Warning. An Information, Analysis, and Warning Network should be established. This Network would operate a global system of ground- and/or space-based telescopes to detect and track potentially hazardous NEOs. The Network, using existing or new research institutions, should analyze NEO orbits to identify potential impacts. The Network should establish criteria for issuing NEO impact warnings.

Mission Planning and Operations. A Mission Planning and Operations "Group," drawing on the expertise of the space-faring nations, should be established and mandated to outline the most likely options for NEO deflection missions. This group should assess the current, global capacity to deflect a hazardous NEO by gathering necessary NEO information, identifying required technologies, and surveying the NEO-related capabilities of interested space agencies. In response to a specific warning, the group should use these mission plans to prepare for a deflection campaign to prevent the threatened impact.

NEO Threat Oversight and Recommendation for Action. The United Nations should exercise oversight of the above functions through an intergovernmental Mission Authorization and Oversight "Group." This group would develop the policies and guidelines that represent the international will to respond to the global impact hazard. The Mission Authorization and Oversight Group should establish impact risk thresholds and criteria to determine when to execute a NEO deflection campaign. The Mission Authorization and Oversight Group would submit recommendations to the Security Council for appropriate action.

Continued; see pdf at

Association of Space Explorers International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation

Russell Schweickart, Chair*
Adigun Ade Abiodun
Vallampadugai Arunachalam
Sergei Avdeev*
Roger-Maurice Bonnet
Sergio Camacho-Lara
Franklin Chang-Diaz*
James George
Tomifumi Godai
Chris Hadfield*
Peter Jankowitsch
Thomas Jones*
Sergey Kapitza
Paul Kovacs
Walther Lichem
Edward Lu*
Gordon McBean
Dorin Prunariu*
Martin Rees
Karlene Roberts
Viktor Savinykh*
Michael Simpson
Crispin Tickell
Frans von der Dunk
Richard Tremayne-Smith
James Zimmerman

*Association of Space Explorers Near-Earth Object Committee


NEO News (now in its fourteenth year of distribution) is an informal compilation of news and opinion dealing with Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and their impacts. These opinions are the responsibility of the individual authors and do not represent the positions of NASA, Ames Research Center, the International Astronomical Union, or any other organization. To subscribe (or unsubscribe) contact For additional information, please see the website If anyone wishes to copy or redistribute original material from these notes, fully or in part, please include this disclaimer.

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