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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 21:58 GMT 22:58 UK
Spaceguard UK opens observatory
Spaceguard Centre, J Tate/Spaceguard UK
The centre houses a series of telescopes
Image: J Tate/Spaceguard UK

By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble

Spaceguard UK, the organisation that has spent years lobbying the government to take the threat of asteroid impacts on Earth more seriously, has opened its Spaceguard Centre in Knighton, Powys.

We're looking at having 30, 40 years of notice

Jonathan Tate
Spaceguard UK
The organisation's founder, Jonathan Tate, wants the Welsh facility to become the National Near-Earth Object Information Centre, a body which the government is creating after publishing a report in 2000 on asteroid impact risks.

"At the moment, the main thrust of what we're doing is public information," he told BBC News Online.

"We want to raise public awareness of the threat of asteroid and comet impacts, and the ways in which we can predict and prevent them."

Sensor array

The centre is housed in what used to be Powys County Observatory, and contains a range of telescopes, satellite data receivers, weather sensors and a seismograph.

You don't have to push it out of the way with one Titanic bang - you can do it incrementally

Jonathan Tate
Spaceguard UK
Spaceguard UK wants it to be a tourist attraction for visitors to the area, as well as a permanent base for the organisation, which functions as an information exchange for specialists in near-Earth objects around the world.

Mr Tate said that he was encouraged by new data from the Nasa probe which landed on the Eros asteroid earlier in the year. The data was, he said, consistent with Eros being a monolithic solid body.

"That's a good thing because if we ever did have to move something like Eros, we'd be in much less danger of turning a cannonball into a cluster bomb," he said.

Incremental nudges

Mr Tate said that technology existed in theory to deflect an asteroid on course for Earth.

"You don't have to push it out of the way with one Titanic bang - you can do it incrementally.

"We have the explosive device: the Americans and Russians have buckets of them. We have the delivery system: the Near-Shoemaker probe landed on Eros.

"We have the components of an effective system but not all in the same place," he added.

Long-range forecast

A good surveillance system would give years or even decades warning of an impending possible collision, and allow politicians time to assess the risk and decide what to do, he said.

Spaceguard Centre, J Tate/Spaceguard UK
Visitors will be able to see the centre's camera obscura
Image: J Tate/Spaceguard UK

"We're not looking at the 'fingers on the button' sort of readiness. We're looking at having 30, 40 years of notice.

"If we had a decent surveillance system, we could do that," he said.

"But even with such systems in place in the future, near-Earth object specialists would still be providing risk assessments rather than definite collision predictions.

"We'll never be able to say it will definitely hit until probably the last month or two. It will then be a political decision to decide what level of probability of impact requires action.

Decreasing scepticism

"We would continue to do what we already do - to provide advice," Mr Tate said. Spaceguard UK believes that scepticism about asteroid impact research is on the wane.

"Over the past decade or so, it has become apparent that asteroidal and cometary impacts have played a dramatic, possibly leading role in the development of this planet, and the evolution of life," it says on its website.

"Natural science is in the throes of a revolution in thinking, akin to that which occurred after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

"With this understanding comes the realisation that there is no reason to believe that this extraterrestrial influence is at an end, and the possibility that a major impact could severely disrupt, or even destroy, our current way of life on a global scale is one to be considered seriously," it says.

BBC Wales's Steve Jones
"A threat to earth from space is no longer science fiction"
See also:

26 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Asteroid's mystery 'blue ponds'
25 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
How reptiles survived the big one
19 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
UK centre to study asteroid threat
12 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Asteroids 'affected human evolution'
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