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Last Updated: Friday, 12 March, 2004, 15:59 GMT
Government 'ignores' space threat
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Doomsday postponed
A real but remote danger, say experts
The UK government is not serious in its study of potentially threatening rocks from space, claim scientists.

They say recommendations made by a task force looking into Near Earth Objects (Neos) in 2000 have not been implemented.

Dr Benny Peiser, of Liverpool John Moores University, accused ministers of being "all spin and no delivery".

But the British National Space Centre (BNSC) - the body that coordinates UK space policy - said no specific commitments had been made by the government.

The centre said it continued to raise international awareness of the issue.

Experts 'unimpressed'

The UK Task Force on Neos was set up following an upsurge in interest in potentially hazardous rocks from space that could strike the Earth.

It was asked to advise on Britain's role in research.

The government has said it wants to be a world leader in Neo research; we certainly have the expertise to be, but it needs to fulfil its promises
Dr Benny Peiser, Liverpool John Moores University
The task force received acclaim for its thoroughness and made 14 recommendations concerning the use of telescopes, the analysis of data, studies of Neos, UK organisation and international coordination.

But after this hopeful start scientists now say the government's interest in Neos has cooled, and it has not implemented the recommendations it said it would.

Lembit Opik, MP for Montgomeryshire with a longstanding interest in the subject, was a driving force behind the establishment of the task force.

He recently laid down a series of parliamentary questions for Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, about the UK's progress on the matter.

Risk assessment

Experts say they were unimpressed by her replies and have voiced their concerns.

"Patricia Hewitt's answers make it quite clear that the UK is not going to do anything at all about the Neo hazard, other than occasionally talk about it at meetings," Jay Tate, director of the Spaceguard Centre, told BBC News Online.

The centre, based at the Powys County Observatory near Knighton in mid-Wales, acts as a focus for UK interest in Neos.

Dr Peiser, who runs an e-mail discussion list about the Neo hazard, said: "The government's announcement that it will not implement the main recommendations advocated by the UK Task Force on Near Earth Objects contradicts what Lord Sainsbury, the minister for space, said last year."

In September 2003, Lord Sainsbury told the House of Lords: "So far as I know, all their recommendations have been implemented although there is a question in some cases of finding the funds for the use of the particular telescopes which have been allocated."

In response, the BNSC said Neos were a high-impact but low-probability risk.

It added that Lord Sainsbury made a mistake in his comments to the House of Lords.

'Sunk without trace'

He later wrote to Lord Razzall, who had asked the question, to correct his statement that all the recommendations from the task force report had been implemented and placed the letter in the Library of the House.

"Almost all of the Task Force's recommendations have now sunk without trace," Mr Tate said.

"All we really have is a website about Neos sponsored by the government, and even the funding for that is not secure after this year."

Dr Peiser added: "The government has said it wants to be a world leader in Neo research; we certainly have the expertise to be, but it needs to fulfil its promises."

The BNSC said another government response to the task force report would be made next month following further parliamentary questions tabled by Mr Opik.

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