The Province of All Humankind

The UN’s Plan to Save the World
From Hazardous Near-Earth Objects

When I don’t have enough other things to worry about, my mind sometimes wanders to the dinosaurs. No, I’m not worried about a Jurassic Park scenario. (That was a great movie, though, wasn’t it?). Rather, I’m worried about the type of cataclysmic event that caused the demise of the dinosaurs. Could a similar disaster in the future bring an end to our current enterprise on Earth? A direct hit from a mile-wide asteroid would not be a pretty sight. It could be a ruinous day for our Anthropocene Epoch.

Actually, even a grazing strike from a large meteor would cause damage and panic on a wide scale. Remember the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013? Fifteen hundred people were injured by shattering glass and collapsing structures.

I know enough about astronomy and our solar system to realize that it is only a matter of time before one of those big space rocks will smash into our lovely planet again. It happened before, numerous times. It will happen again.

Despite this depressing certainty, I’m not a fatalist when it comes to asteroid catastrophes. There may be occasions when passive observation is appropriate. But, this is not one of those times. We need action to protect our planet from the doomsday rock with our number on it. We have the knowledge and the capacity to defend our Earth. The time for action is now!

A fireball explodes over Chelyabinsk, Russia,
as captured on a dash cam.

That’s not just my opinion. The UN General Assembly agrees.

In December, 2013 — partly as a result of the meteor strike in Chelyabinsk — the members of the United Nations adopted a resolution expressing serious concern “about the devastating impact of disasters.” (See Resolution A/RES/68/75 on International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space).

The General Assembly’s Resolution went beyond a simple statement of concern. The UN has actually had a committee laboring on this problem for a number of years. So, as part of its Resolution, the General Assembly endorsed an action plan that was proposed by a working group of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Here’s the operative language of Resolution A/RES/68/75:

“The General Assembly…
“8.   Welcomes with satisfaction the recommendations for an international
response to the near-Earth object impact threat, endorsed by the Scientific
and Technical Subcommittee at its fiftieth session and by the Committee at
its fifty-sixth session.”

It is a prosaic statement, not like other well-known UN documents which have inspired action on human rights, peacebuilding, disease eradication, and other issues of global concern. In this case, the action of the General Assembly will be remembered for its substance — not for any flowery language.

Here’s a short description of the UN’s 3-point plan for saving our planet from near-Earth objects.

(1) Identify and Validate the Threat. The UN will establish an International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), which will be a clearing house for receiving reports on observations of Near Earth Objects (NEO’s) — basically, any asteroids or comets which could pose a potential threat to Earth.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, is the CEO of the Planetary Society
— one of several agencies and groups that are part of the
United Nations Working Group on Near Earth Objects.

The Network will process all NEO observations, deciding which ones should be catalogued for future reference and which should be singled out for notice as a “potentially hazardous object.”

(2) Deflect / Mitigate. Under authority of the UN, the space-faring nations of the world will establish a space mission planning advisory group. The group will consider “…the framework, timeline and options for initiating and executing space mission response activities.”

Deflecting an incoming NEO will not be an easy task, and it will carry some risks. The advisory group will weigh “the various options for deflection and the implications (technical readiness, political acceptability, cost of development and operation…) of a particular deflection strategy.”

If a defensive space mission is not feasible, the IAWN will mobilize existing national and international disaster response agencies to prepare for a potential NEO impact event. “IAWN should… assist Governments in their response to predicted impact consequences. This does not limit the possibility of organizing, in this respect, additional international specialized advisory groups, if necessary.”

(3) Promote Continuing International Cooperation in Space.

(The 3-point plan described above is summarized from the “Final Report of the Action Team on Near-Earth Objects,” published by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, 11-22 February, 2013)

With regard to international cooperation in space, it should be noted that this is not a new topic for the United Nations. The UN has been promoting and supporting space exploration for more than 50 years — dating back to the creation of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1959.

For example, the UN has developed a body of Space Law to guide international cooperation among the Earth’s spacefaring nations. These agreements include:

• The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which established the principle that, “The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;”

Mazlan Binti Othman is a Malaysian astrophysicist who
is the director of the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs.

• The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the “Rescue Agreement”), in 1968;

• The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (the “Liability Convention”), 1972;

• The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the “Registration Convention”), adopted by the General Assembly in January, 1975; and

• The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the “Moon Agreement”), which entered into force in 1984.

It makes sense for the United Nations to take a leadership role in protecting our planet from the hazards of space. It is the largest international organization in the world; its membership encompasses nearly every nation, including all spacefaring nations.

With its long history of leadership on issues of global security and cooperation in space, the UN has the credibility, respect, and organizational legitimacy needed to mobilize the resources of nations, international space agencies, scientific organizations, etc.

When we find a big space rock hurtling toward us, we want our best people to be focused on forming a life-saving solution — not squabbling about who is in charge.

Knowing all of this, I’m able to sleep a little better at night — but only a little. I still worry about the unknown hazards lurking in the dark corners of our solar system. There are thousands of asteroids that haven’t yet been catalogued, and more are being discovered every day.

Our capacity for detecting these objects is improving, but not fast enough for worry-warts like me. We’re really just in the infancy of our efforts to protect our planet from NEO hazards. (I’m especially concerned about the big one that didn’t show up when we thought it would).

I support the UN’s efforts on the coordination of outer space activities. I just wish they had more resources and could move a little faster.

Bill Bryant
Director of Communications
Greater Oklahoma City Chapter
United Nations Association of the USA

Messages from Space Explorers to Future Generations
In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of human space flight, and to pay tribute to the extraordinary journey of the men and women who have flown into space, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) invited past and present space explorers to provide a message that might inspire future generations.

Here is the message that was shared by Anatoly Ivanishin, who flew on the International Space Station in 2010 and 2011. (See more at the UNOOSA website)

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