The United Nations plans to establish an international body to coordinate efforts to defend Earth from dangerous space rocks, asteroids and comets, should scientists find any heading toward our planet.
The U.N. passed a resolution last week calling for the establishment of an “International Asteroid Warning Group,” tasked with scanning the skies for extraterrestrial objects, the Scientific American reported Monday.
Another U.N. body, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, established at the height of the Cold War in 1959, will help the group devise ways to deflect or destroy such cosmic threats.
The decision comes after the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) issued a report last week on the need for international cooperation on the issue. Among other topics, the paper dealt extensively with international legal implications of responding to an approaching space rock.
“No government in the world today has explicitly assigned the responsibility for planetary protection to any of its agencies,” said Rusty Schweickart, former astronaut and chair of the ASE's International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation, at a panel discussion held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Oct. 25, according to the magazine.
“There are 100 times more asteroids out there than we have found. There are about 1 million asteroids large enough to destroy New York City or larger. Our challenge is to find these asteroids first before they find us,” said Ed Lu, a former Space Shuttle astronaut, who along with Schweickart founded the nonprofit organization B612, which advocates for asteroid detection.
The ASE report stressed that early detection of an impending collision is key to drawing up plans to do something about it.
If detected too late, there is little that can be done other than to “make yourself a nice cocktail and go out and watch,” said Schweickart.
B612 hopes to launch a space telescope, dubbed Sentinel, by 2017 to search for "near earth objects," or NEOs.
The popular perception of a dangerous asteroid might be the massive space rock that likely caused the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but smaller events can cause grave danger to humans too.
The potential of an impact causing damage to people on Earth became very real in February of this year in Russia, when a 40 foot-wide chunk of space debris exploded over the town of Chelyabinsk, injuring more than 1,600 residents when the shockwave shattered windows, with an explosive force equivalent to around 500,000 tons of TNT.
About 70 people suffered temporary blindness and other suffered burns from the blast, the Associated Press reported.
The Chelyabinsk meteor was small enough to slip past current warning nets, but big enough to cause damage to a populated area.
In 1908, another meteor exploded over Russia, in Siberia, leveling 800 square miles of forest in a remote region near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River.
The object that caused the Tunguska blast was roughly 100 feet wide, and released a blast of about 10 million tons of TNT.
“Had the impact occurred in a more populated region of the planet, say New York or London, millions of people would have been killed without any warning,” according to B612’s website.
“Chelyabinsk was bad luck,” Lu said, adding: “If we get hit again 20 years from now, that is not bad luck — that’s stupidity.”
A 1,300-foot-wide asteroid caused some jitters last week when it streaked within 4.2 million miles of Earth, with a return pass expected in 2032, Reuters reported. That asteroid hadn’t been observed before, and was dubbed TV135.
The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) said there is almost no chance of it hitting us when it comes back around.
But, if it did, NASA says the the impact would cause a blast equivalent to 3,200 million tons of TNT.