Sun, showers… and an asteroid strike!

Anyone who has seen the disaster movie Deep Impact will recall the calm and measured tones of the US President as he tells the world of its impending doom as a result of an asteroid collision. It was a slick if chilling public relations exercise. But in reality how prepared is the world for having to deal with such a momentous announcement?

Artist's impression of an NEO headed for Earth
Artist’s impression of an NEO headed for Earth. Credit: NASA/ESA

Not very, seems to be the answer. A new report claims there is a need to establish an effective international communications strategy. But it says that doing so is a daunting task that demands effective use of mass communication tools – including, even, the weather forecast.

This week the findings were being presented to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), meeting in the Austrian capital Vienna. It was drawn up by the Near Earth Object Media/Risk Communications Working Group for the Secure World Foundation, a privately run research organisation based in Colorado.

The report calls for an effective communication strategy and the setting up of an Information, Analysis and Warning Network (IAWN) to gather and analyse data about passing asteroids, or Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and to provide timely warnings to national governments should one threaten the Earth.

It remarks that the call for such a network, made up of space agencies and other appropriate organisations, was first made by the group in an earlier report in 2001. That report said that because the potential for NEO impacts represented a global, long-term threat to humanity’s collective welfare, and because there were many uncertainties about where such impacts might occur and how much damage they can do, there should be international preparations under the control of the United Nations to help identify a NEO impact threat and decide on effective prevention or disaster response measures.

The new report recognises that establishing an effective international communications strategy for potentially hazardous NEOs and/or an impending NEO strike will require effective use of mass communication tools from television to the Internet, and other information channels and technologies.

It says general education should include information about NEOs and their place in our solar system, the nature of the potential threat, plus specific information related to warnings of a potentially hazardous NEO. One suggestion about how this could be done is by encouraging TV weathermen to report on asteroid approaches along with information about the pollen count.

It said it was be very important for the IAWN to develop a detailed and effective plan for informing policymakers and key agencies about the potential threat of NEOs and possible responses. It was agreed that very few government officials—whether at the national, provincial, or local level — know much, if anything, about NEO threats, outcomes, and possible responses.

Dr Michael Simpson, Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation, said: “A lot of attention is focused on the catastrophic damage a large asteroid could do if it collided with Earth. This report focuses on how to prevent the even greater damage we could cause ourselves by mis-communicating or failing to work together on a common response to the threat.”

A 25 million-ton space rock called Apophis will skim by the Earth three times in the next 56 years. On Friday 13th of April, 2029, it will come closer than TV and communications satellites. After that it will make two other close encounters, the first in 2036 and then again in 2068. Though scientists have been unable to rule out a collision in 2036 due to uncertainty about the effects of the 2029 pass, it is extremely unlikely.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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