GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO THE REPORT OF THE TASK FORCE ON
NEAR EARTH OBJECTS
Lord Sainsbury announced today (24 February) the Government response to the
report of the Near Earth Objects Task Force, chaired by Dr Harry Atkinson.
In publishing the Government's response, Lord Sainsbury said, "The
Government endorses the view of the Task Force that since the possible
dangers posed by Near Earth Objects are not limited to any one nation, an
international approach is essential.".
Work being taken forward will include:
the European Space Agency working to devise a European Strategy on NEOs in
advance of the meeting of the ESA Council at Ministerial level in November
of this year;
the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) carrying out a
further detailed study of telescope facilities necessary for finding,
tracking and characterising properties of NEOs;
the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) discussing
with the UK the establishment of an international forum for discussion of
and action on the threat to earth from Near Earth Objects; and, the British
National Space Centre (BNSC) continuing to act as the lead Government
Department on NEO policy.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO THE REPORT OF THE TASK FORCE ON POTENTIALLY HAZARDOUS
NEAR EARTH OBJECTS
24 February 2001
In January 2000, following discussions in Parliament and approaches from
members of the public, the Government announced the setting up of a Task
Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects.
Dr Harry Atkinson, formerly of the Science and Engineering Research Council
(SERC) and former Chairman of the European Space Agency's Council, was
invited to lead the Task Force. He was assisted by Sir Crispin Tickell,
British diplomat, and Professor David Williams, former President of the
Royal Astronomical Society.
The Task Force was invited to make proposals to the Government on how the
United Kingdom should best contribute to international effort on Near Earth
Objects, and to advise the Government on what further action to take.
After extensive consultation with interested parties and the scientific
community both nationally and internationally, the Task Force published its
report on 18 September 2000. The report is available at
The Government would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the
excellent work the Task Force has done in getting to grips with this complex
issue. Their well-prepared report is the first comprehensive review, as far
as we are aware, of this challenging subject. The report has been well
received both in the UK and internationally and has already played an
important role in raising international awareness of the potential threat.
Having considered the report, the Government's view is that since the
possible dangers posed by Near Earth Objects are not limited to any one
nation, an international approach to the problem is essential. Here in the
UK we have a great deal to bring to an international approach including:
· A strong track record in astronomy and in sky surveys (e.g. UK Schmidt
· A wide field survey telescope in the southern hemisphere (VISTA) and the
UK Infrared Telescope
in the northern hemisphere which is being adapted for survey work;
· Through its facilities in La Palma and its future membership of the
Observatory the UK has or will have access to a number of small and medium
sized telescopes in
both hemispheres which could be used or adapted for survey and follow-up
· Particular skills in telescope design and construction in both academia
· UK industry produces what are currently the state of the art CCD imaging
chips for astronomical
use. This is a key technology for Near Earth Object study;
· Expertise in small satellite technology.
The Government takes the view that the first priority for the UK and its
international partners should be to find, track and characterize Near Earth
Objects in order to gain a greater understanding of the nature of the NEO
threat. The complex and controversial issue of mitigating their effects can
then be addressed.
Many of the report's scientific recommendations on the need to find, track
and characterize Near Earth Objects (NEOs) are inter-related. The UK's
Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, PPARC, has undertaken to
use the expertise available in its scientific community to produce costed
options analysing the most effective way of implementing the telescope-based
recommendations as a group (recommendations 1, 2, 4 and 5).
The Government's response to the individual recommendations of the Task
Force's Report is set out below. This document is also available through
the British National Space Centre website, http://www.bnsc.gov.uk, and
through the Near Earth Objects website, http://www.nearearthobjects.co.uk.
Negotiations with and between international institutions, and analysis of
complex scientific proposals, take time. The Government therefore
undertakes to provide a further report later this year on its progress in
implementing the response set out below.
Response to Recommendations
Survey and discovery of Near Earth Objects
We recommend that the Government should seek partners, preferably in Europe,
to build in the southern hemisphere an advanced new 3 metre-class survey
telescope for surveying substantially smaller objects than those now
systematically observed by other telescopes. The telescope should be
dedicated to work on Near Earth Objects and be located on an appropriate
In November 2000 the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced
that the UK intended to join the European Southern Observatory (ESO) whose
telescopes are in the southern hemisphere. ESO has indicated that it is
interested in exploring with the UK the possibility that a 3 metre-class
telescope could be made available at its observing sites in Chile. This
could take the form of the new telescope envisaged in the recommendation, or
a modification of one of ESO's existing 2-4 metre telescopes. The latter
option would not necessarily compromise the telescope's efficiency.
PPARC has offered to take the lead in preparing costed options for how this
recommendation could best be implemented, together with similar studies of
recommendations 2, 4 and 5. Decisions on which options to take forward will
need to be made against the background of funding priorities.
We recommend that arrangements be made for observational data obtained for
other purposes by wide-field facilities, such as the new British VISTA
telescope, to be searched for Near Earth Objects on a nightly basis.
PPARC will consider this recommendation as part of the analysis they will
undertake of telescope facilities related to NEOs. PPARC will also address
how survey data could be made available to identify or track NEOs through
the 'Virtual Observatory' project. This project, called AstroGrid, plans to
give astronomers remote access through the Internet to a number of UK and
other European telescopes.
We recommend that the Government draw the attention of the European Space
Agency to the particular role that GAIA, one of its future missions, could
play in surveying the sky for Near Earth Objects. The potential in GAIA, and
in other space missions such as NASA's SIRTF and the European Space Agency's
BepiColombo, for Near Earth Object research should be considered as a factor
in defining the missions and in scheduling their completion.
Government officials have already drawn the European Space Agency's
attention to the role that GAIA and BepiColumbo could play in NEO survey.
In the case of GAIA, a comprehensive stellar survey telescope proposed for
launch no later than 2012, it has been established that additional data
analysis capability could be added into the specification of the mission to
search for moving objects such as asteroids. This mission is currently in
the design stage and it is expected that this capability will be included in
the implementation of the mission, should it prove feasible. The
specification of the BepiColumbo mission to Mercury (planned for launch in
2009) has also been altered to include a dedicated NEO camera. BepiColumbo
should provide unique data on those asteroids whose orbits are mostly
interior to the earth's orbit round the Sun.
The exact scheduling of these two missions depends on the decisions taken at
the European Space Agency Ministerial Council meeting in November 2001.
The UK Government has drawn NASA's attention to the role its SIRTF mission
could play in NEO research. SIRTF is expected to make a further
contribution to identification and characterization of NEOs.
Accurate orbit determination
We recommend that the 1 metre Johannes Kapteyn Telescope on La Palma, in
which the United Kingdom is a partner, be dedicated to follow-up
observations of Near Earth Objects.
Following the Task Force's Report, PPARC has already discussed access to the
Johannes Kapteyn Telescope with its international partners (the use of the
JKT is shared in particular with the Netherlands Organization for Scientific
Research), and has received an encouraging response. It has started to
develop a costed analysis with the Director of the Isaac Newton Group of
telescopes, in the Canary Islands.
The preparation of this analysis will form part of PPARC's analysis of
telescope facilities related to NEOs.
Composition and gross properties
We recommend that negotiations take place with the partners with whom the
United Kingdom shares suitable telescopes to establish an arrangement for
small amounts of time to be provided under appropriate financial terms for
spectroscopic follow-up of Near Earth Objects.
PPARC already supports a number of high scientific priority studies and
observations of NEOs through research grants and telescope time. This is
expected to continue. There may be opportunities through the recent
Spending Review settlement, in particular through funds directed to
information technology, to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of
PPARC will consider this recommendation as part of its analysis of telescope
facilities related to NEOs.
We recommend that the Government explore, with like-minded countries, the
case for mounting a number of coordinated space rendezvous missions based on
relatively inexpensive microsatellites, each to visit a different type of
Near Earth Object to establish its detailed characteristics.
The Government recognises the importance of characterizing NEOs and the
value of initiatives such as NASA's NEAR mission to the asteroid Eros. The
Government will explore through the European Space Agency the possibility
for future microsatellite rendezvous missions, emphasising the potential of
such missions to achieve both scientific and technological objectives.
Coordination of astronomical observations
We recommend that the Government - together with other governments, the
International Astronomical Union and other interested parties - seek ways of
putting the governance and funding of the Minor Planet Center on a robust
international footing, including the Center's links to executive agencies if
a potential threat were found.
The Government welcomes the work done by the Minor Planet Centre and values
its role in coordinating and archiving data on NEOs. NASA is currently
pursuing a number of options to provide suitable funding for the Minor
Planets Centre and the Government will work together with NASA, the
International Astronomical Union, the European Space Agency and other
European partners to identify appropriate support to the international
In addition, the Government will explore with ESA whether it has plans for
similar facilities in Europe.
Studies of impacts and environmental and social effects
We recommend that the Government should help promote multi-disciplinary
studies of the consequences of impacts from Near Earth Objects on the Earth
in British and European institutions concerned, including the Research
Councils, universities and the European Science Foundation.
The Government has drawn the attention of the Research Councils to the Task
Force's report and the importance of multi-disciplinary studies of this
nature. Funding for high quality scientific proposals of interdisciplinary
studies related to impact consequences is already available through the
Research Councils' peer review process. In addition, the UK's Natural
Environment Research Council makes a small contribution to the European
Science Foundation's multidisciplinary IMPACT programme, looking at "the
nature of impacts and their impact on nature".
We recommend that the Government, with other governments, set in hand
studies to look into the practical possibilities of mitigating the results
of impact and deflecting incoming objects.
There is currently a scarcity of precise knowledge about the exact nature of
the NEO threat. Mitigating any impact by deflection would appear to be a
more attractive option than break-up, since the latter might well result in
a greater number of smaller NEOs to cope with world-wide. Discussions of
this global problem with the US Department of Defense, NASA, ESA and the UK
Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) have thus far provided no
clear position on what should be done, although it is clear that the highest
priority lies in the provision of improved observation to provide the
maximum possible warning time. Options for deflecting NEOs range from the
launch of small spacecraft many years in advance of the predicted impact
date to rendezvous with the NEO to gently "nudge" it away from its collision
course, through to last minute deflection using high energy explosive
devices, the use of which would need to be very carefully considered.
In relation to mitigation, the Home Office has studied the possible
consequences of emergencies of this sort, and contingency arrangements are
already in place. These involve local agencies (principally the police, fire
and ambulance with local authorities and health providers), who plan, train
and exercise together so that any response is co-ordinated. An impact in
the UK from a NEO would be dealt with under these arrangements.
If the level of threat were identified as being significant (in time and
magnitude), specific arrangements would need to be put in place. These would
fall under the aegis of the Civil Contingencies Committee, a committee of
Ministers and senior officials chaired by the Home Secretary or senior Home
We recommend that the Government urgently seek with other governments and
international bodies (in particular the International Astronomical Union) to
establish a forum for open discussion of the scientific aspects of Near
Earth Objects, and a forum for international action. Preferably these should
be brought together in an international body. It might have some analogy
with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, thereby covering
science, impacts, and mitigation.
The Government agrees on the need for an international forum to discuss and
co-ordinate action on the NEO issue. The Government welcomes an approach
already received from the OECD with an offer to assist in this area. Their
approach is particularly attractive as the OECD has the reach to pull in the
main players in space-related activity. Discussions of the risk from NEOs
might also contribute to OECD's project on Emerging Systemic Risks, with
which the UK is already associated.
Organisation in Europe
We recommend that the Government discuss with like-minded European
governments how Europe could best contribute to international efforts to
cope with Near Earth Objects, coordinate activities in Europe, and work
towards becoming a partner with the United States, with complementary roles
in specific areas. We recommend that the European Space Agency and the
European Southern Observatory, with the European Union and the European
Science Foundation, work out a strategy for this purpose in time for
discussion at the ministerial meeting of the European Space Agency in 2001.
The Government welcomes this recommendation. The Science Programme of ESA
has undertaken the task of convening a European forum of "decision makers"
in the course of 2001 to discuss Europe's role in this area. In parallel,
the European Science Foundation is preparing a report on NEOs. The European
Southern Observatory is also keen to be involved in these discussions.
Organisation in United Kingdom
We recommend that the Government appoint a single department to take the
lead for coordination and conduct of policy on Near Earth Objects, supported
by the necessary inter-departmental machinery.
The Government accepts this recommendation. The British National Space
Centre will take the lead in Whitehall on policy in this area. BNSC is a
successful example of joined up Government which brings together those
Government Departments and Research Councils with an interest in civil
space. It includes the majority of Departments or Research Councils with an
interest in the NEO issue i.e. the Department of Trade and Industry, Office
of Science and Technology, Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth
Office, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Particle
Physics and Astronomy Research Council, Natural Environment Research
Council, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and DERA.
As the Department within Government with responsibility for civil
emergencies, the Home Office would take over as Lead Government Department
in the event of civil emergencies arising from an imminent impact or the
aftermath of one.
Consultation between BNSC and the Home Office will take place through close
working with the Home Office Emergency Planning Division. In addition
coordination meetings will take place between interested Departments and
British National Centre for Near Earth Objects
We recommend that a British Centre for Near Earth Objects be set up whose
mission would be to promote and coordinate work on the subject in Britain;
to provide an advisory service to the Government, other relevant
authorities, the public and the media, and to facilitate British involvement
in international activities. In doing so it would call on the Research
Councils involved, in particular the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research
Council and the Natural Environment Research Council, and on universities,
observatories and other bodies concerned in Britain.
See the response to recommendation 14 below.
We recommend that one of the most important functions of a British Centre
for Near Earth Objects be to provide a public service which would give
balanced information in clear, direct and comprehensible language as need
might arise. Such a service must respond to very different audiences: on the
one hand Parliament, the general public and the media; and on the other the
academic, scientific and environmental communities. In all of this, full use
should be made of the Internet. As a first step, the Task Force recommends
that a feasibility study be established to determine the functions, terms of
reference and funding for such a Centre.
At this stage, the Government foresees that a key role for such a facility
would be to act as a showcase for the public on NEO issues, providing clear
and balanced information and hence assisting in the public understanding of
science. The Government will look into the options available for developing
such a centre.
In addition to the Government's response to the Task Force's Report, the UK
is taking a leading role in four related developments.
The NEO report and actions arising from it are to be discussed at the March
meeting of the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee steering group.
The report is also to be discussed at the Scientific and Technical
subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in
February. At this meeting a joint symposium on Space Hazards will be held by
the International Scientific Union Committee on Space Research and the
International Astronautical Federation. NEOs will be discussed along with
other hazards such as man-made space debris. BNSC will participate actively
in this symposium to promote consideration of both issues.
BNSC is encouraging ESA to bring the NEO issue to the agenda of the ESA
International Relations Committee.
BNSC has raised the issue of NEOs within the European Space Agency's Working
Group for the Space Debris Network of Centres and will continue to report to
that group on progress.
Finally, the Government would once again like to pay warm tribute to the
excellent work of the Task Force, led by Dr Harry Atkinson, and to emphasize
the importance that it attaches to carrying this work forward.
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