On 29 June, Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire since 1997, spoke to a packed meeting at the British Interplanetary Society.
His grandfather, the astronomer Ernst Julius Opik, had pioneered near-Earth object studies, and now the grandson was reporting on his own long-running campaign to get the British government to take seriously the threat of natural disaster from collision of an NEO with Earth.
There was good news, and bad. The good news was that, as everyone with an interest in the subject will remember, the political campaign succeeded in persuading Lord Sainsbury to create a Near Earth Object Task Group, with the remit of assessing the problem and reporting back to Parliament.
Mr Opik entertained us with a description of the first parliamentary debate on asteroids. It was surprisingly well attended -- but this turned out to be due, not to any sincere interest in cosmic dangers, but to the fact that word had got around that Mr Opik was about to commit political suicide by launching a debate on a subject from the lunatic fringe. Fortunately, those who had come to gloat over his imminent demise were treated instead to an intelligent and persuasive case for action.
The resulting Task Group reported back in September 2000, and made 14 recommendations, which were accepted by Lord Sainsbury.
Since then, one recommendation has been implemented, resulting in the setting-up of the official Near Earth Objects Information Centre in Leicester. The other 13 recommendations have all been effectively ignored.
So far as my own research can reveal, there appears to have been no progress made in the UK since CCNet headlined the story: "British Government accounces it won't implement main recommendations of NEO Task Force" (CCNet 35/2004 -- 10 March 2004). In that issue, Benny Peiser editorialised:
The British Government has announced that it will not implement the main recommendations advocated by the UK Task Force on Near Earth Objects. The Government response comes three years after Lord Sainsbury declared that 'Britain is to take a leading role in an international effort to defend the Earth against a catastrophic collision with an asteroid or comet' (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1187487.stm).
As it turns out, not only has the Government failed to implement most of the Task Force's recommendations; Britain no longer pretends that it seeking to comply with any of the key proposals. At a time when the U.S. has introduced legislation that is likely to lead to a significant increase of its budget for searching and researching near Earth objects, Britain has abandonded its NEO Task Force and most of its agenda. Rather than "playing an important part in how the international community tackles the NEO hazard," as Lord Sainsbury proudly proclaimed in February of 2001, the Government's public pledges have been exposed as empty gestures and PR stunts.
In the same issue, Jay Tate, the director of the Spaceguard Centre and the man behind much of the NEO lobbying in Britain, reported on Parliamentary Questions posed to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, on 25 February 2004, by Lembit Opik. His summary was:
The Secretary of State's replies make it quite clear that the UK is not planning to do anything at all about the NEO hazard, other than occasionally talk about it at meetings. Almost all of the Task Force's recommendations have now sunk without trace, and all that we've got is agreement from the OECD to investigate the issue (which is good), increased interest from ESA (which is even better) and a small and not-so-smart (now) shop window in Leicester -- the shop's shelves are still empty.
At the BIS meeting, Mr Opik stated that he wanted "another big push" to see the campaign through to completion.
He was "very optimistic" about the future, but with regard to the UK situation cautioned his audience: "every time I stop pushing, the project stops". Therefore he wanted help, and specifically wanted people to write to their own constituency MP on the subject.
The sums of money that would be involved, he told us, were trivial, compared with, say, the sums being spent on the British presence in Iraq. But politics is very much driven by fashion. He gave the example of CJD versus motor neurone disease: the former attracted big government funding because it was in the news, whereas the latter caused far more actual fatalities. Again, he mentioned the disincentive for the government to spend money on something that many people would say was less important than schools and hospitals.
For these reasons his own statements had stressed the dangers of cosmic collision, to the point where he had attracted criticism for sensationalising the subject -- e.g. by promoting in the media an image of an asteroid some 1300 km across impacting our planet. (Ceres, the largest known asteroid in the inner solar system, has a diameter of 950 km; apart from some satellites of the gas giants, Ceres is only exceeded in size by Pluto, 2003 UB313 ("Xena"), and the other major planets themselves, none of which will ever come anywhere near Earth.)
He described the relationship he had enjoyed with Nigel Nelson of the tabloid paper "The People". Together they had run an asteroid-threat story every month or two. In this way they had successfully turned NEOs into a public talking-point, and made Lord Sainsbury take responsibility for them -- though at the same time had provoked outbursts from Benny Peiser along the lines of: "Oops, we've done it again! What critics have warned would happen again, has happened again. Another idiotic asteroid scare set off as a result of misconstrued information released by the NEO community. You read that right: another false alarm buttressed by lurid quotes from scientists and politicians who seem helpless in the face of confusing hazard scales and bewildering impact risk values." (CCNet 74/2003 -- 15 September 2003.)
At the end of his talk, I asked Mr Opik why he had not raised the point that asteroid exploration is valuable for its own sake, in view of their future economic potential. He replied that he supported prospecting asteroids for economic gain, but regarded this as a separate issue to be addressed later, after measures to protect Earth from a collision had been put in place.
In other words, asteroid exploration in his view should at present be conducted purely as an exercise in risk management, with no word to be breathed about the key role that those very same asteroids, accessed by the very same technologies, could play in opening up avenues of future economic growth of critical importance to civilisation. I found this logic puzzling.
Of course, since the Task Group reported, there has been progress in the US and in Europe. ESA is in fact planning a test asteroid deflection mission, called Don Quijote, but on a leisurely schedule that will not see a launch until 2011. (See CCNet 58/06 -- 4 April 2006, "Planetary protection: ESA's asteroid deflection mission may launch in 2011".) If the precedent of ESA's Aurora programme is anything to go by, we are justified in being sceptical that Don Quijote will get launched even by 2011.
If Britain is to play her proper role in asteroid exploration and risk management, then we must get the recommendations for action of the NEO Task Group implemented. These are summarised on the Spaceguard UK website (http://www.spaceguarduk.com/recommendations.htm -- though unfortunately without any critical comment on their significance).
All UK readers of this are urged to write to their constituency MP to ask him or her what the Government is doing to implement these recommendations.
-- Stephen Ashworth
Kim Peart (Australia) and Adriano Autino (Italy) have recently (June 2006) proposed instituting an International Space Day, possibly on 20 July.
Adriano Autino wrote: (with spelling corrections)
What I suggest is the following:
- 1) to prepare a short letter (no longer than an A4 page), explaining why we want an International Space Day
- 2) to sign it, all of us, both individually and for our organizations: TDF, SpaceFuture, Space Age Associates, OURS, Space Settlers, and other that will be added during the campaign
- 3) to prepare a web page, to be shared among the proposers, to gather signatures and subscriptions to the petition, and votes for the ISD date
- 4) to hold press conferences in all the countries where we are, promoting this initiative
- 5) to write newsletters all around the planet, calling for an oceanic subscription [meaning unclear -- presumably an Italian idiom for "huge"? -- S.A.] to our initiative
- 6) when the letter will have enough signatures, send it to ESA, NASA, UNO and whoever else can decide to institute an ISD.
As to the letter characterization, and ISD characterization, my setup is at least the following one:
- 8) focus on astronautics, as necessary condition for the continuation of human civilization
- 9) focus on the need to celebrate our first successes, and to commemorate the astronaut comrades who gave their life for human expansion out of our mother planet
- 10) focus on the need to accelerate the engagement, in order not to fail the favourable time window to step to the stars
- 11) focus on the need to help the birth of the space economy
- 12) focus on the need to gain very large public support for the space enterprise.
The following responses have come my way:
Those who have an opinion on the subject should get in touch with Adriano Autino on: Technologies of the Frontier: www.tdf.it -- (adriano.autino--at--tdf.it) ANDROMEDA s.r.l.: www.andromeda-srl.com -- (adriano.autino--at--andromeda-srl.com)
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