TMCnet News

[March 13, 2009]


(English IPS News Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) UNITED NATIONS, Mar. 12, 2009 (IPS/GIN) -- As the United Nations grapples with global problems from the economy to climate change, there is apparently a new threat looming over Earth: plummeting asteroids.

A small asteroid, estimated to be over 200 feet wide, zoomed past the planet last week, causing consternation among scientists and space watchers.

"The asteroid that missed the Earth would have had a destructive capacity of between 600 and 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs," said Walther Lichem, an Austrian diplomat and a member of the International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation.

He said last week's asteroid, if it had crashed, would have totally destroyed 4,000 to 8,000 square miles of Earth's surface, with additional regional implications.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration defines asteroids as metallic, rocky bodies, without atmosphere, that orbit the sun but are too small to be classified as planets.

The largest of the asteroids, Ceres, first discovered in 1801, is about 600 miles in diameter, while the smallest are the size of pebbles.

The risk path of one of the identified asteroids -- dubbed Apophis -- is expected to run from Siberia, the Pacific, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela to the west coast of Africa.

In a paper to the United Nations last September, the Association of Space Explorers and its International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation said within the next 10 to 15 years, the world body will face decisions about whether, and how, to prevent a threatened asteroid impact.

"To counter a threat of global dimension, information-sharing and communications capabilities must be harnessed to identify and warn society of hazardous Near Earth Objects [NEOs]," it said.

The study also said that to prevent an actual impact, an international decision-making program, including necessary institutional requirements, must be agreed upon and implemented within the framework of the United Nations.

"If the international community fails to adopt an effective, internationally mandated program, society will likely suffer the effects of some future cosmic disaster -- intensified by the knowledge that loss of life, economic devastation, and long-lasting societal disruption could have been prevented," it warned.

"[And] we cannot afford to shirk that responsibility," the report declared.

In February, the report was submitted to the Scientific and Technical Sub Committee of the General Assembly's Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), and will eventually be part of the U.N.-COPUOS report to the General Assembly at its 64th session in September.

However, the focus of COPUOS is technical and does not include the profound security and legal issues of mitigation operations.

A delegation from the Association of Space Explorers, which includes former astronauts and cosmonauts, met the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, late last year to press their case.

Lichem said the 192-member General Assembly has to address the issues involved, and launch an institutional development and capacity-building process.

He said d'Escoto felt it appropriate that the General Assembly, i.e. the entire community of nations, be briefed of the challenges planetary defense is posing.

"It will also be meaningful if the Security Council initiates a process of introducing the planetary defense into its agenda even if concrete decision-making needs may arise only once every seven to 10 years," said Lichem, who is also an academic and a former Austrian ambassador and head of the Department for International Organizations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Lichem, who also authored a 30-page study on Asteroid Threat Mitigation -- Institutional and Legal Implications, said "the issue of considering the defense of our planet against impacts by Near Earth Objects reflects in many ways the New Global Agenda the international community is facing." Addressing the threat of asteroids is "almost incomprehensibly complex, requiring the essential input from the scientific and technical sectors of our societies, yet is at the same time in need of decision-making at political levels with the corresponding dimension of political responsibility," he added.

Meanwhile, the Association of Space Explores has also posed a series of critical questions, including: Who will issue warnings to evacuate a predicted impact point? Based on what information? How will the public react if there are conflicting predictions? Who pays to deflect an asteroid? What does such a mission cost? A U.N. official said that COPUOS is expected to discuss the association's report during its meeting in June.

Laying out the U.N. decision-making process, he said the General Assembly can take this up only after a specialized body discusses it.

An expert in space law said that no one is responsible or liable if and when an asteroid crashes into Earth.

"Technically, it is a massive piece that comes down like the shuttle or a plane coming down. But debris in space keeps orbiting for years, with the danger of debris damaging other functional satellites also in orbit, including the space station," he explained.

Needless to say, he added, "an asteroid could do damage on Earth or to other satellites, but it is almost an act of God and there is little we can do." He also said that over the last couple of years, the Association of Space Explorers has worked out a protocol and presented it to COPUOS for adoption.

Last month, the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna called all member states and international organizations to fully implement measures to curb space debris following the collision of an inactive Russian satellite with an operational one from the United States.

"The prompt implementation of appropriate space debris mitigation measures is in humanity's common interest, particularly if we are to preserve the outer space environment for future generations," the director of UNOOSA, Mazlan Othman, told reporters.

According to UNOOSA, the inactive Russian communications satellite Cosmos 2251 and the operational U.S. satellite Iridium 33 collided at an altitude of some 500 miles above Earth, creating a cloud of nearly 700 pieces of space debris.

Space debris remains in orbit for a considerable length of time and poses a risk to spacecraft orbiting Earth, the U.N. body warned.

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