The Scientific and Technical subcommittee of the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) held its 50th meeting this past February 11-22, 2013 in Vienna, Austria. Attending as observers were MPC director, Tim Spahr, and your humble author. During these meetings delegates from member states gave a summary of their country’s space activities during the past year as well as showing plans for the near future. It seems like the most popular theme was the establishment of GPS networks independent of the US’s NAVSTAR network, with China (Beidou), Russia (Glonass), Europe (Galileo) and Japan (QZSS) all boasting their own GPS project. Other nations reported on on-going rocket prototype launches, launch facilities, weather and environmental satellites, etc.
More important to the NEO mission at hand were the meetings throughout these days of the Subcommittee’s Working Group on Near-Earth Objects, tasked with proposing international procedures to address the NEO threat. During these meetings, which all delegates could attend, presentations were given by appropriate member states on their involvement in the observation, tracking or mitigation of NEOs. Dr Spahr gave his presentation on Monday 18 about the role the MPC plays in the coordination of NEO observations and what we do with all the data we receive (calculate orbits, coordinate NEO observations, predict impending impacts, make it all public, etc.). The presentation was well received and we were approached afterwards by a number of people having questions to ask; with the meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk having occurred scarcely 3 days prior, interest in NEOs was understandably high. Being at the forefront of astersocial media, we were tweeting live from the UN floor; check out our #COPUOS-themed tweets.
Furthermore, meeting separately from the general COPUOS meeting was the Action Team on Near-Earth Objects (Action Team 14), chaired by Dr Sergio Camacho (Secretary General of CRECTEALC), which was tasked in 2001 with:
- Review the content, structure and organization of ongoing efforts in the field of near-Earth objects;
- Identify any gaps in the ongoing work where additional coordination is required and/or where other countries or organizations could make contributions;
- Propose steps for the improvement of international coordination in collaboration with specialized bodies.
The MPC participated actively in these meetings, whose final report was endorsed by the Subcommittee. In short, the report recommends the establishment of a network and two groups, described below. Beware, acronyms ahead.
International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN)
Formed through the coordination of institutions that already exist and are working on some aspect of the NEO issue: Discovery, cataloguing, monitoring, characterisation, etc. Specifically, they recommend “maintaining an internationally recognized clearing house for the receipt, acknowledgement and processing of all NEO observations,” which is precisely what the MPC has been doing since 1947. How convenient! IAWN will also recommend when and how impact threat notifications should be made and how to best inform countries’ leaderships of the consequences of an impact on their home soil. IAWN would also inform COPUOS and OOSA (the UN’s Office of Outer Space Affairs).
Special emphasis was placed on finding hazardous asteroids as far ahead of time as possible, and obtaining enough observations that their orbits can be accurately predicted many years into the future.
Impact Disaster Planning Advisory Group (IDPAG)
The organisation of this group will be initiated by IAWN; it will be charged with studying past large-scale disasters and developing action plans should an asteroid impact occur. It would be formed by representatives of existing national and international disaster response agencies.
Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG)
This group (pronounced same page) would be established by UN member states with space agencies and would be tasked with developing and implementing asteroid impact mitigation strategies through the promotion of studies and research into this field.
The flowchart below shows how all these entities would work together in case of a threat.
To learn more about the Action Team’s recommendations, read the publicly available handout PDF. You can also listen to the press conference given by Sergio Camacho (Chairman of Action Team 14), Lindley Johnson (Near Earth Object Observation Program Executive, NASA) and Detlef Koschny (Near Earth Object segment manager, ESA) on 20 February 2013, where they talk about the recommendations of the working group and the recent Chelyabinsk airburst.