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Monday, 26 February, 2001, 17:49 GMT
UK asteroid response 'unsatisfactory'
Astronomers want a British asteroid-warning centre
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Scientists have criticised the UK Government's response to an expert report on the threat to the Earth from asteroids and comets.

The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space programme. It will serve us right if we suffer the same fate

Arthur C Clarke
They say the reply, from science minister Lord Sainsbury, is "half-hearted" and "largely non-committal".

Lord Sainsbury announced on Saturday that the UK would continue discussions about the potential threat identified by the Near Earth Object (Neo) Task Force last year. Some experts had hoped for immediate action.

Dr Benny Peiser, of Liverpool's John Moores University, said: "It is a mixed message: many promises, but no delivery."

Lost momentum

He told BBC News Online: "Just days after US researchers announced that life on Earth was almost wiped out 250 million years ago by the impact of a giant asteroid or comet, the UK Government has published a half-hearted and largely non-committal response to the task force report on potentially hazardous near Earth objects.

"It was perhaps too optimistic to hope that the government would implement all of the task force's 14 recommendations. But the failure to announce any significant action, or any financial commitment, is unsatisfactory," he said.

Jonathan Tate of the pressure-group Spaceguard UK told BBC News Online: "With the encouraging report by the Neo task force last year, we felt we were making progress but I fear the momentum could now be lost."

Spaceguard UK added in a statement: "A golden opportunity for the UK to take a world lead is in danger of being lost.

"The Neo Task Force report significantly raised the profile of the impact hazard worldwide, and the promise of British government action had given many international organisations pause for thought.

"The failure to follow this matter through is disappointing to all concerned."

Forum for discussion

A four-point package of measures to tackle the potential threat from asteroids and comets was announced by Lord Sainsbury on Saturday.

These include:

  • A review of how existing UK telescope facilities could be used to track potentially hazardous neos;
  • Evaluating the setting up of a UK facility to provide information and education on neos;
  • Convening a forum of "decision makers" in the course of 2001 to discuss Europe's role in this area;
  • Considerations by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to set up an international discussion and action forum on the potential threat from neos.
The announcement follows a report by the Neo task force last year, which proposed how the UK should best contribute to an international effort.

The government has said it is considering refurbishing an existing telescope to hunt for and monitor rogue asteroids. However, some astronomers argue that re-fitting an existing telescope would not work and that a new telescope is needed.

Welsh observatory

In the absence of an official body to study the neo threat, Spaceguard UK, a privately run organisation that has campaigned for government action since 1996, is establishing one of its own, based in mid-Wales.

The Spaceguard centre will be situated at a private observatory on a hill overlooking the town of Knighton. It should be in operation by the autumn.

"Its aim is to ensure that the public will remain thoroughly informed on neo research and planetary defence issues," Jonathan Tate said.

"It will also continue to lobby the government in order to ensure that its vague promises will be followed by concrete action."

Commenting on the issue of asteroid defence, space visionary Sir Arthur C Clarke said from his home in Sri Lanka: "The science fiction writer Larry Niven once said, 'The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space programme.' It will serve us right if we suffer the same fate."

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See also:

24 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
UK targets asteroid threat
04 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Saving the world from asteroids
18 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Call for asteroid defences
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