Hunting For Near-Earth Objects And Asteroids
February 1, 2014

The International Hunt For NEOs Begins

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

For the first time, national space agencies from Africa, Europe, the Americas and Asia will establish an expert group aimed at getting the world’s space-faring nations on the ‘same page’ when it comes to reacting to asteroid threats, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced on Friday.

Its task is to coordinate capabilities and expertise for missions to handle asteroids that might one day strike Earth. The Space Mission Advisory and Planning Group (SMPAG - pronounced ‘same page’) was established by Action Team 14, a forum mandated by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) to formulate a strategy on how to react on a possible asteroid impact threat.

SMPAG will coordinate the technological knowhow of agencies to recommend specific efforts related to asteroid threats, such as basic research and development, impact mitigation procedures and deflection missions.

“SMPAG will also develop and refine a set of reference missions that could be individually or cooperatively flown to intercept an asteroid,” said Detlef Koschny, head of the near-Earth object (NEO) division inside ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) office. “These include precursor missions or test and evaluation missions, which we need to fly to prove technology before a real threat arises.”

The first meeting of the group will be hosted by the ESA on February 6 and 7 at its operations facility in Darmstadt, Germany. More than 30 representatives from 13 agencies, seven government ministries and the UN will discuss knowledge and the latest research related to impact case analyses, and will create a work plan for the following two years.

“As a first step, the group will study each agency’s organizational and operational capabilities, specific technologies and scientific abilities, and propose options that make best use of who can do what, the best,” Detlef said.

SMPAG is expected to collaborate with another Action Team 14-mandated committee: the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN). The entire endeavor will study and encourage specific moves to deal with different aspects of the asteroid threat. IAWN will coordinate the global hunt for threatening NEOs, understand their effects in case of an impact and connect with disaster preparation and civil response agencies. SMPAG will focus on the technology and space mission aspects.

The all-important initial step is to spot probable threats in the sky with the maximum amount of advance warning as possible.

“ESA is already doing a great deal to support the global effort to address the asteroid threat,” said Nicolas Bobrinsky, ESA’s SSA program manager.

The ESA is now creating the capability to network Europe’s current NEO tracking assets, along with new technology such as computerized, wide-field-of-view telescopes, into a synchronized and more efficient NEO system that can supply nightly sky surveys and advanced warnings.

Beginning in late 2013, the ESA will use its scheduled observing time at the European Southern Observatory in Chile to perform quick and exact confirmations of the most dangerous NEOs.

Greater than 600,000 known asteroids are in our Solar System, with more than 10,000 classified as NEOs because their orbits bring them relatively close to our path.