Former Astronaut Calls For International Effort To Identify Possible Danger

So, a big nasty rock is heading for Earth. Who you gonna call?

Nineteen regions or countries, including Canada, have space programs, but – Hollywood epics notwithstanding — there is no cooperative process for deflecting a killer asteroid.

The math means humans sooner or later will have to take a shot at bumping an asteroid off-course before knowing for sure whether it will hit us.

We could nudge it with a small explosion or tow it so it misses the planet. A nuclear explosion would be a last resort, and might actually cause more, smaller problems by blowing it into bits.

With new telescopes, including one to be launched by Canada in 2010, expected to increase asteroid detection by 100 times in the next 10 to 15 years, paranoia is likely to soar to new heights.

The actual risk of an impact won’t increase, but many more of us will be asking, “Do we duck or do we take action?” former astronaut Rusty Schweickart told a conference of 2,000 of the world’s top space scientists in Montreal Monday.

About 3,000 asteroids are known to be capable of destroying a major city on impact. That number will soon leap to 300,000, he said.

Between five and 10 of those will require a concerted decision on deflection by 2020, Schweickart predicted.

The coming asteroid awareness boom could bring on “a reign of crying wolf,” he added, since the data probably will be interpreted by crackpots and experts alike.

“If only one in 10,000 is a real threat, then 9,999 aren’t threats,” he said. “We need to avoid misinformation.

“We can’t have the Italians or the Venezuelans issuing warnings only to have the United States saying that’s a bad interpretation.”

Speaking to the 37th International Scientific Assembly, gathered in Montreal for a week-long meeting, Schweickart said the United Nations is the best organization to ensure a level playing field to deal with the mounting awareness of potential cataclysms.

Canada will play a leading role in the asteroid awareness boom when it launches the Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite in 2010.

The $12-million, suitcase-size NEOSSat will be the world’s first space telescope devoted to tracking threatening space rocks.

The 72-year-old Schweickart, who founded the Association of Space Explorers, a 300-member group of former astronauts from 32 countries, said existing technology would have to be 99 per cent effective to divert an asteroid off its doomsday path.

Schweickart, who flew on the Apollo 9 mission to low Earth orbit in 1969, emphasized to about 150 scientists that packed a room for his speech that he was not calling for another layer of bureaucracy or much more additional spending.

All that is required is better networking and an authoritative body to sort through potential threats, he said.

“We need to have a process in place now that will decide the criteria” for what is the quickest, cheapest and safest way to shove off an asteroid, he said.

At the conference, which runs through Sunday, scientists will discuss a range of topics, from the Earth’s changing environment to how solar flares affect the price of wheat, to the likelihood of other habitable planets.

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