CCNet-SPECIAL: UK GOVERNMENT URGED TO ESTABLISH SPACEGUARD
"A stupid charge often made against science fiction is that it
is escapist. In fact, it is deeply concerned with the real - and
often dangerous - universe. Almost 30 years ago I wrote in
Rendezvous With Rama: [...] Well, I am happy to say that
Spaceguard is no longer fiction."
-- Sir Arthur C Clarke, 16 September 2000
(1) THE COSMIC TIME BOMB WAITING TO GO OFF
Tim Radford, The Guardian, 16 September 2000
(2) ROCK SHOCK
Duncan Steel, The Guardian, 16 September 2000
(3) HOW I HELPED TO SAVE STAR TREK
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, The Times, 16 September 2000
(1) THE COSMIC TIME BOMB WAITING TO GO OFF: GOVERNMENT URGED TO
ESTABLISH SPACEGUARD AGAINST DEADLY COMETS
From The Guardian, 16 September 2000
The cosmic time bomb waiting to go off: Government urged to establish
'spaceguard' against deadly comets
By Tim Radford, science editor
Scientists will urge the government to set up a guard against
destruction from outer space, in an official report to be published on
Monday. A task force will report that collisions with "near earth
objects" such as asteroids and comets are no longer the stuff of science
fiction: they represent a real threat. A collision with one the size of
a small village could wipe out a third of the human race.
A 100-metre object crashes into the planet every 10,000 years -
triggering a 100 megaton explosion in the air, larger than the largest
H-bomb ever tested. A 1km object scores a direct hit on the planet every
100,000 years - with the force of 10m Hiroshimas.
The near earth objects task force, led by Professor Harry Atkinson, a
scientist who has worked both for the European space agency and Nasa,
was set up in January to consider the growing evidence of danger and to
take advice from astronomers.
His report will urge the government to release £20m for a new
telescope in the southern hemisphere to comb the skies, and to "buy"
time on a network of new or existing telescopes in Australia, Hawaii and
the Canary islands to track the solar system's "loose cannons". The task
force - made up of Prof Atkinson, Sir Crispin Tickell, the former
British ambassador to the UN, and Professor David Williams of University
College, London - will also recommend close partnerships with European
and US astronomers to ensure systematic global coverage.
The report will suggest support for space-based instruments to sweep the
skies for potential cosmic traffic accidents and British involvement in
European and US satellites which could rendezvous with asteroids far
away and study them more closely. And it is expected to urge a kind of
British "spaceguard" research centre, perhaps at the Armagh observatory
in Northern Ireland, to keep disaster experts, astronomers, media and
government in touch with each other.
One problem is that the US - which funds a "minor planet centre" at
Harvard - controls (sic!) the detailed astronomical information from
observers all over the world. The report could urge that Britain share
some of the cost. "It's an unhealthy state of affairs even if the US is
an ally, when one country controls (sic!) the information," said one
researcher [ - who seems completely ignorant of the international status of
the Minor Planet Center which is working on behalf of and answerable
only to the International Astronomical Union; the anti-American slant is not
only factually incorrect, as so often, but rather embarrassing given that
the U.S. (via NASA) is indeed the only country that is currently helping to
foot the costs of running the MPC, BJP].
Objects from space hit the earth all the time - at speeds of more than
10 miles a second. Most burn up harmlessly, as shooting stars. Hundreds
have landed as small rocks. There is no record of any human being killed
by a comet or asteroid - but a large one could destroy civilisation. The
aim, the task force report will say, is to detect a potential collision
years or, better still, decades in advance, giving governments of the
world time to take measures.
"What they are talking about is setting in motion ways in which we could
really deflect one of these things. That is the contentious one, because
that involves nuclear weapons," said one astronomer last night. "It
doesn't say that, but we know it does. If you are going to deflect one,
you have got to use a nuclear weapon. There is no other way to do it."
This would mean launching a robot spacecraft to meet an asteroid, and
then triggering a precisely calculated explosion which would knock it
off course so that it would miss its date with the earth.
Other bodies in the solar system are pock-marked by asteroid craters.
The earth's asteroid scars have been removed by erosion - but there have
been a number of collisions identified by planetary scientists. The most
famous coincided with the death of the dinosaurs 65m years ago, but a
100-metre object exploded over Siberia in 1908 and wiped out 2,000 sq
miles of forest. Two large asteroids have passed alarmingly close (sic!)
to earth in the last few years. US and French astronomers recently
calculated that 900 asteroids, all 1km across or larger, are whizzing
around the solar system on orbits that cross that of the earth. But
Europeans want to start tracking smaller objects.
"A 200-metre object plonking into the Atlantic would effectively take
out all the cities around the seaboards. Those smaller events occur
rather more fre quently - they are talking about a once every several
thousand years event," said Duncan Steel of the University of Salford,
one of the leading authorities on asteroids and comets. "The report
highlights the way in which Britain can make a real contribution to the
international programme - in essence to become No 2 in the world, behind
the US. This would put the UK in a Europe-leading role."
Jonathan Tate, a British army officer who several years ago began
pressing for governments to take the threat from space seriously, is the
director of SpaceGuard UK. He argued that a crash from a 1km asteroid -
a one-in-100,000-years event - could kill 25-30% of the human race
within a year. Assuming a UK population of 60m when it happened, that
would work out at an average of 150 deaths a year over that 100,000-year
period. One authority values a human life at £850,000.
"That actually works out at £123m a year to do nothing," he said.
"One of the major effects of this report will be to dispel, for once and
for all, the giggle factor associated with the impact hazard. No sane
person can any longer regard this as either funny or science fiction."
Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire, has been
pushing the government to take the issue seriously for two years. "If
the report confirms a clear and present danger of an impact of global
significance, and that we can do something about it with today's
technology, I shall be happy," he said yesterday.
Copyright 2000, Guardian Newspapers Limited
From The Guardian, 16 September 2000
UK scientists urge us to insure against the danger of being flattened by
a giant asteroid
By Duncan Steel
The search for petrol may be at the front of our minds this weekend. But
for those who want distraction, there is another big problem to worry
about. We in Britain should take the threat more seriously of collision
with large rocks from space.
Last December 30, lost among the millennium celebrations, Lord Sainsbury
announced the formation of a top-level task force consisting of Sir
Crispin Tickell, Dr Harry Atkinson and Professor David Williams, to
investigate the asteroid hazard. Their report is due to be published on
Monday. They are to confirm that the hazard we face is not trivial, and
to recommend a suite of actions that the UK might implement, as a
participant in a global programme aimed at ensuring that we are not
Although the US is by far the dominant player in this field, the UK is
well placed to lead European efforts to tackle this surprising danger.
We must secure the future of the human race against attack from above.
We have got all our eggs stored in one basket. It's called the Earth. We
must keep it safe. The dinosaurs couldn't see their nemesis coming. We
can, and having realised the danger it would be negligent of us to adopt
an ostrich-like stance.
Forget, for the moment, Bruce Willis and the other heroes of those
cosmic disaster movies Armageddon and Deep Impact. The way the universe
really works is this. In our yearly orbit around the Sun, many space
rocks pass us by. Some are large, some small. Some come near, but most
keep their distance. The Earth collects about 40,000 tons of celestial
debris each year, mainly tiny grains producing the familiar shooting
stars seen on a dark night. But every so often a whopper slams into us.
Of concern are those bigger than about a kilometre: maybe a mile at the
outside. A crater 10 miles wide and several miles deep would be
excavated by one of these. By dint of the extreme speed, the energy
released on impact would be equivalent to about 100,000 megatons of TNT.
Around 10m times the Hiroshima bomb.
This is the threshold at which a global upset of the environment would
be caused (putting it mildly), and we may expect at least a quarter of
the human race to perish. How often might that happen? Answer: about
once every 100,000 years.
Now, is that anything to be concerned about? As a scientist, I have to
compare it against other risks. If the kill-rate is one in four people,
the chance of dying that way is one in 400,000 per annum. If you have a
remaining life expectancy of 40 years, this means there is a one in
10,000 probability that an asteroid catastrophe will end your days.
Statistics for airline disasters indicate that the average westerner's
chance of dying in a plane crash is around one in 30,000. So asteroids
are more dangerous than jetliners. We spend billions on the latter, and
essentially nothing on the former.
Compare the risk against other major catastrophes, such as nuclear power
stations or chemical plants exploding. The government has safety
guidelines for such things. Take that one chance in 100,000 per annum
level of occurrence as reference: the guidelines say that if some
accident has that likelihood and it would kill more than 100 people,
then money should be spent if it is feasible to reduce the risk. If
the death expectancy is more than 10,000, then the risk is defined as
being "intolerable", and it must be tackled.
A massive asteroid impact anywhere around the globe has that annual
probability, and no matter where it hits one may expect more than 10m
Britons to die. The safety guidelines indicate, then, that this is
super-intolerable. The government must act.
The average voter still thinks people such as I are joking when we argue
that there is a significant hazard posed by asteroids running into the
Earth. Bruce Willis has fooled you. As a matter of fact, it is about as
funny as cancer, or mass murder. Not to realise that some things are
dangerous without having it painfully proven to you is dumb. Hydrogen
bombs have never killed anyone. But we can imagine the consequences of a
war in which they are used in anger.
What can we do, having recognised the danger? All that is advocated at
this stage is a surveillance programme aimed at answering one question:
is there a major impact due within the next century? Most likely the
answer is "no".
It is like taking out car insurance: you hope you won't need to make a
claim. But if the answer is "yes" then, with adequate warning, we can
take ameliorative action. The only viable method we know to divert an
identified impactor involves nuclear weapons, but it is not like in the
movies. We are talking here about having 10 or 20 years to get out there
and give it a small but sufficient nudge such that it misses our
planetary home, and does not deliver its far more powerful punch.
The parallel with cancer is a pertinent one. Cancer screening costs
relatively little and most often the result is negative. But if a tumour
is found, then all the feasible cures are unpleasant, and they may only
be used if the cancer is picked up early enough. And you won't find it
if you don't look.
Ah, but you have never heard of anyone dying due to an asteroid strike?
No, there have been no really large impacts during recorded history. Of
course not. You wouldn't be here to read about it if there had been. But
there was a 15 megaton event over Siberia in 1908 that would have
flattened the whole of London if the circumstances had been only
slightly different. And Chinese records tell us of a meteorite explosion
killing tens of thousands in the 15th century.
Statistics can be misleading. Take air crashes. I'm a member of the
Qantas frequent flyer club, an airline that has never had an accident.
Does that mean that next time I board a Qantas jet to Sydney I have zero
risk of dying? Circumstances can change quickly. Until recently Concorde
was regarded as a paragon of air safety. Two decades ago virtually
everyone, weather forecasters included, thought that hurricanes never
The only nation spending any sensible amount on asteroid defence is the
United States. And I do mean "defence" - the two most productive search
telescopes are owned by the US Air Force. In effect we too, need to
declare war on the heavens.
Duncan Steel is reader in space technology at the University of
Copyright 2000, Guardian Newspapers Limited
HOW I HELPED TO SAVE STAR TREK
From THE TIMES, 16 September 2000
How I helped to save Star Trek: it turned out to forecast our future
By Arthur C. Clarke
I have two very good reasons for welcoming the Science Museum's Star
Trek exhibition. Sixty years ago, I used to haunt the museum's
galleries, fascinated by its historic exhibits: how delighted I am that
it now has some from the future.
And if I had not met Gene Roddenberry at a critical moment, Star Trek
would have been a forgotten piece of television pre-history. After
attending one of my lectures on space travel, Gene introduced himself
and told me that his series was being cancelled because the television
executives, in their inscrutable wisdom, had decided that there was no
audience for it. Poor Gene was broke and about to mortgage his home. I
introduced him to my lecture agent, who was sceptical but booked him
into a small hall, which couldn't hold the audience he attracted. That
was the turning point: as Gene wrote in a tribute on my 70th birthday:
"Arthur literally made my Star Trek idea possible."
Now there are purists who say that Star Trek isn't science fiction, but
science fantasy, and they have a point. Genuine science fiction should
describe things that could happen according to present knowledge, and
today we are fairly certain that we won't be able to dash from one star
system to another in time for the next week's episode. We can also be
sure that the inhabitants of other worlds won't look anything like human
beings, or speak fluent American.
Yet much that once seemed fantasy has now become fact. Sixty years ago
if anyone had written a story in which a city was destroyed by banging
two small pieces of metal together, virtually all physicists would have
said: "Utter nonsense!" Five years later, this is how the greatest of
wars was ended. Today there are many other examples of my Third Law: Any
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Science fiction is probably best known to the general public for its
successful prediction of space travel, even though most of the details
are often hilariously wrong. Jules Verne got the muzzle velocity right
for his "moon gun", but the unfortunate travellers would have been
reduced to a thin smear before they left the barrel. And H. G. Wells's
"gravity screen" is physically impossible: it would violate the law of
the conservation of energy.
From the 1930s onwards it was generally realised that the rocket is the
only way to go. Nevertheless their spaceships were usually built in
garages by eccentric professors with a couple of assistants. Few
imagined Cape Kennedy and armies of engineers.
The solar system has also failed to live up to expectations. Although
the Moon was written off a long time ago, there were still hopes for
Mars, until our space probes showed that it was a frozen desert with an
atmosphere far too thin to breathe even if it contained oxygen, which it
doesn't. No canals, no princesses, probably no life of any kind.
Well, I don't believe it. The still-busy Mars Surveyor has sent back
some of the most extraordinary images ever received from space. One
shows what any unbiased observer would say are clumps of bushes in a
frozen landscape. Even more spectacular are gigantic "glass worms"
hundreds of feet long: they are probably frozen lava tubes, but I can't
A stupid charge often made against science fiction is that it is
escapist. In fact, it is deeply concerned with the real - and often
dangerous - universe. Almost 30 years ago I wrote in Rendezvous With
Rama: "At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally
beautiful summer of the year 2071, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw
a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky moving at 50 kilometres a
second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of
northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labour of
centuries . . .
"After the initial shock, mankind reacted with a determination and a
unity that no earlier age could have shown. No meteorite large enough to
cause catastrophe would ever again be allowed to breach the defences of
"So began Project Spaceguard."
Well, I am happy to say that Spaceguard is no longer fiction: by a truly
amazing coincidence, this has just appeared on my computer screen:
"Government task force to report on 'Deep Impact' threat"
The report announces that, after a four-year campaign by Spaceguard UK,
a task force on "near-earth objects" is to publish its report on Monday.
The Task Force's terms of reference were: "To confirm the nature of the
impact hazard, identify current UK activities and make recommendations
on future action."
Who says that science fiction has nothing to do with the real world?
Copyright 2000, The Times Newspapers Ltd.
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