The United Nations Considers Plan To Defend Earth From Asteroids

A meteor streaks over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHELYABINSK.RU, YEKATERINA PUSTYNNIKOVA
A meteor streaks over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHELYABINSK.RU, YEKATERINA PUSTYNNIKOVA

A United Nations committee last week recommended approval of a new plan to help prevent the world from ending due to asteroids crashing into it, according to the Scientific American, setting into motion plans for a panel to help protect the world from the threat of heavenly bodies.

Earlier this year, a meteor crashed down over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, injuring 400 people in its wake. A group of scientists and former astronauts gathered at the American Museum of Natural History on Friday pointed to the fact that most Earth-bound observers had no idea such a relatively small object was coming could spell disaster in the future if larger objects wander into the globe’s path. “Chelyabinsk was bad luck,” former astronaut Ed Lu said. “If we get hit again 20 years from now, that is not bad luck — that’s stupidity.”

Fortunately, the United Nations now appears to be on the case. Specifically, the Fourth Committee of the General Assembly — or the Special Political and Decolonization Committee — welcomed the recommendation of the Commission on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS) to set up a series of international groups to act as an early warning system against these asteroids. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs provided ThinkProgress with more details on the proposal’s recommendations to the General Assembly:

Those recommendations are the result of a multi-year work under a dedicated Working Group. As part of those recommendations, two international mechanisms should be established:

a) an international asteroid warning network (IAWN), comprising of a wide spectrum of organizations, for discovering, monitoring and characterizing potential hazardous near-earth objects (NEO) population. Serving as a clearing house for processing NEO observations, and recommending criteria for notification of an emerging impact threat, are among the objectives of this network to be established. Interface between relevant international organizations and programmes and national and international disaster response agencies in order to study and plan response activities are also key functions to be established under that network;

b) a space mission planning advisory group (SMPAG) should be established by Member States of the UN that have space agencies. The main objective of this group to be established would be to lay out the framework, timeline and options for initiating and executing space mission response activities, as well as to promote international collaboration on research and techniques for NEO deflection.

The U.N. General Assembly has formally accepted or implemented neither of these recommendations, spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly Afaf Konja told ThinkProgress. But if they are, should such an near-Earth object be detected the COPUOS will help coordinate a mission to launch a spacecraft designed to slam into the asteroid move the celestial body out of the Earth’s path. Unfortunately, the plan does not at present include does not involve the assistance of the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER), despite being the best named multilateral organization currently in existence.


The U.N. role in preventing a mass extinction was discussed at the aforementioned panel of Association of Space Explorers (ASE) experts last week, who were promoting the launch of a new private space-based telescope designed to see these objects approaching. The B612 Foundation, co-founded by ASE member and former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, is currently raising money from private donors to launch the infrared space telescope, dubbed the Sentinel, in hopes of raising the $450 million needed for the mission by 2017.

Despite the evidence that space represents some very real risks to humanity, the last few years have not been kind to space exploration in the United States. President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal decreased NASA’s overall budget by $59 million, to $17.7 billion with another marginal decrease in the 2013 proposed budget. While that may seem minor, the NASA budget has decreased from above 5 percent of GDP at the height of the space race to around half a percentage point today. On top of that, sequestration has proven a serious blow to the work that NASA has been performing. The 16-day shutdown of the federal government also hit NASA disproportionately, with 97 percent of its staff furloughed during the government’s closure.