07/02/2014 - 16:20

Threats from space: 20 years of progress

John L. Remo

A physicist, Remo is a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Departments of Astronomy and Earth...

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It has been 20 years since planning began for the 1995 United Nations International Conference on Near-Earth Objects. The conference proceedings established the scientific basis for an international organizational framework to support research and collective actions to mitigate a potential near-Earth object (NEO) threat to the planet. Since that time, researchers have conducted telescope surveys that should, within the coming decade, answer many questions about the size, number, and Earth impact probability of these objects. Space explorations to asteroids and comets have been successfully carried out, including sample recovery. Laboratory experiments and computer simulations at Sandia National Laboratories have analyzed the effects of high-energy-density soft x-ray radiation on meteorites—which might help researchers develop a way to redirect an incoming asteroid by vaporizing a thin layer of its surface. An Action Team on NEOs, established in 2001 in response to recommendations of the Third United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, identified the primary components of NEO mitigation and emphasized the value of finding potentially hazardous NEOs as soon as possible. Recommendations from the action team are meant to ensure that all nations are aware of the NEO danger, and to coordinate mitigation activities among nations that could be affected by an impact, as well as those that might play an active role in any eventual deflection or disruption campaign.