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Friday, 9 March, 2001, 16:46 GMT
Lords call for better Earth defences
Nasa Asteroid
It happened to the dinosaurs
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Peers in the UK's House of Lords have called for more action to be taken to protect the Earth from a collision with a large asteroid.


It cannot be a question of if but when a Near Earth Object finally impacts

Lord Tanlaw
As the lords made their plea, a space rock called 2001 EC1 was travelling away from the planet having just passed our world by little more than one million km.

The space rock, which measures about one km (0.6 miles) across, had been discovered just days before. Had it struck the Palace of Westminster, it would have wiped out much of London.

Lord Tanlaw said that with recent discoveries, "it cannot be a question of if but when a Near Earth Object (Neo) finally impacts."

Replying for the government, science minister Lord Sainsbury said that the threat was taken very seriously and that several initiatives were in hand.

Money needed

Lord Tanlaw wanted to know when the British Government was going to spend some money on the threat.

He said: "Does the government not have an obligation to future generations to look beyond the event horizon of the next general election and to prepare to mitigate future risks from near space?"

In a series of critical questions directed at Lord Sainsbury, he asked if the minister could explain why governments seemed quite prepared to fund the preservation of our civilised past and yet were unwilling to pay for the protection of the future of our civilisation?

It was a point echoed by Lord Hunt of Chesterton: "I would strongly recommend that, as with weather forecasts, a systematic procedure is introduced for assessing the accuracy of Neo trajectories and near misses."

Competitive funds

Replying to these points Lord Sainsbury said that the government took the threat from space very seriously and was about to take decisive action following a report drawn up by experts last year.

"My role as minister for science is to seek a balance between the overreaction which could be induced by the thought of global-killer asteroids and any complacency arising from the rarity of such impacts."

But regarding the allocation of more money, he said: "We have no extra funds for these activities. They will have to compete with the activities which we already undertake in the field of space and astronomy."

Lord Sainsbury said that the government already spent considerable sums on astronomy and that it seemed not inappropriate to direct a modest amount to determine whether any asteroid or comet could endanger us.

Astronomers said that the need for the UK to have a centre for prompt information on Neos was illustrated by events that took place just before the debate.

There was a relatively near miss of the Earth by a substantial (about one km-wide) asteroid on 27 February but nobody realised it because the object was not discovered until 3 March, well after its closest approach.

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See also:

21 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Earth's close shave
18 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Call for asteroid defences
24 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
UK targets asteroid threat
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