From Lords Hansard
Near Earth Objects
Lord Tanlaw rose to call attention to the report of the Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I start by declaring an interest in the subject of near earth objects as founder and chairman of the all-party Astronomy and Space Environment Group. Some noble Lords may ask themselves why it is necessary to debate the threat created by the low probability, high consequence hazard of near earth objects now rather than later. I believe that it is necessary because of the long lead time required for prophylactic action to be taken after recognition of the problem by government. That view is based on my own experiences of trying to bring the threat of greenhouse gases to your Lordships' attention a quarter of a century ago.
It appears that governments require a long gestation period of procrastination before they can identify any problem connected with the improvement of terrestrial or near space environment, and even longer when they take a decision to act upon it which might require government funding. Of course there are exceptions. I congratulate the Minister on, first, having the political courage to lift potentially hazardous near earth objects above what has sometimes been referred to as the "giggle barrier", for I believe that it has been this lack of political credibility which has delayed any serious debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Secondly, the Minister for Science should be able to take his place with honour among the distinguished visionaries, scientists, knights, poets and peers listed on page 36 of the report for having set up the task force in the first place. I add only the name of Lembit Opik, the honourable Member for Montgomeryshire, who has done so much to prepare the ground for the report.
The professional team selected by the Minister, which was headed by Dr Harry Atkinson, ably supported by Sir Crispin Tickell and Professor David Williams, has justly received international acclaim for the quality of its report. It is a world first and has undoubtedly established the United Kingdom as an intellectual and scientific leader in the field of near earth objects. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that this advantage will not be lost through lack of follow-up by his Government.
I have instigated this debate in the hope that the good work undertaken by the task force will be financed on a permanent basis by the Government. Does the noble Lord agree that the establishment of a British centre for near earth objects at the Armagh Observatory would be a good starting point? Will the Minister also give a firm indication that there will be specific funding to implement recommendations 13 and 14 contained in the report; in other words, can the costs of research and telescopic hardware be met without deducting funds from other areas of astronomical research in other government departments, in particular PPARC which to date has been so supportive of all those involved with near earth objects?
Does the Minister agree that the British National Space Centre may be geared up to hold and distribute special funds for this purpose? Does the noble Lord also agree that that may be a more positive role than that of the inter-departmental post office which seems to be its present function?
Before I look at the Government's response to the report in more detail, it may be worth asking: what are hazardous near earth objects which were the subject of investigation by the task force? According to the report, they are asteroids and long and short- term comets which fulfil the role of Alpha and Omega, as described by St John the Divine in his apocalyptic vision in the Book of Revelations. They are the seeds of Armageddon which procreate the chemistry for all carbon- based life in the universe, of which we are but a small part. In its introduction on page 9 of the report the task force goes on to say this about them:
"As a species humans would not now exist without them. On the one hand we can rejoice in them; on the other we can fear for our future". We humans have been riding as passengers for the past million years aboard the planetary vehicle we call Earth which is hurtling round the sun on a darkened highway we call the ecliptic at 67,000 miles an hour. Up until now we have not been able to observe clearly all the hazardous objects that are around us which are 3 billion year-old left-overs from the planetary builders' yard. Therefore, we have not worried about them.
To continue with the "vehicle" analogy, we are only just beginning to find out how the lights work. We can now see for the first time the very real dangers that lie ahead. Unfortunately, we cannot stop the world and get off, nor can we manoeuvre it out of harm's way. As a result, in the past there has been impact damage to the Earth, which is shown on pages 10, 18 and 19 of the report, and also to our planetary neighbours such as the moon and Mars, which we can see with a good pair of binoculars.
We have witnessed the catastrophic impact of the Shoemaker-Levy comet on Jupiter, and astronomers are beginning to observe with the new family of powerful telescopes that there are comets and planets circling around alien suns. I believe that there is now positive evidence of asteroid material in 85 per cent of all visible stars.
The inter-planetary debris of asteroids and short and long-term comets comes in all shapes and sizes. Near earth objects can be solid pieces of iron or loosely bound snowballs of ice and stone, and the huge numbers observed, even without a detailed survey which the task force has proposed, and the Government have agreed to as a first priority, are approximately as follows. There are 150 million near earth objects in the 10 to 100 metre category; 300,000 in the 100 to 500 metre category; 10,000 in the 500 to 1 kilometre category; and 1,500 which are 1 kilometre or larger. Duncan Steel's diagrams on pages 9 and 10, which are copied from his excellent book Target Earth that is available in the Library, indicate the complexity of their orbits around the earth.
The Government's website shows approximately 50 asteroids averaging 50 metres in diameter which will near miss the earth during 2001. Fortunately, only a small percentage of all near earth objects are deemed hazardous, and they are the only ones which are on a direct collision course with earth. If they are accurately logged usually they can be identified many years before eventual impact.
If we look at the table on page 16, we can expect a 75 metre asteroid to impact every 1,000 years, with an explosive yield 10 times the power of the hydrogen device detonated on Bikini Atoll. An asteroid in that category-- similar to the Tunguska event in 1908-- will destroy cities the size of London, Moscow or Washington. If noble Lords consider for a moment the total amount of potentially hazardous material in near earth orbit, they will realise that it cannot be a question of "if" but "when" a near earth object finally impacts on the earth's surface. We must hope that until there is a satisfactory system of mitigation or defence the object concerned will not be too big.
I believe that the deployment of an effective shield against cometary and asteroid impact must constitute the rite of passage for all intelligent life, regardless of where it may exist in the universe. Will the Minister confirm that this was perhaps the main reason and justification for his preparation of the task force report on hazardous near earth objects?
I am rather disappointed in the Government's initial response to the practical possibilities of mitigating the results of impact and the deflection of an incoming object. Surely the Home Office is not fully equipped to deal with either of these problems without assistance from the Ministry of Defence. No doubt plans for the Anderson shelter are still available for public distribution, but I ask the Minister whether they are enough to cope with the scale of the catastrophe anticipated of a major impact. As for deflection, I can see that it is theoretically possible after the remarkable controlled contact by the NEAR- Shoemaker satellite with the asteroid Eros. But will not effective deflection entail the use of nuclear weaponry? Will the technology not be open to misuse by any nation with asteroid modification capabilities, which wishes to deflect an object deliberately onto a terrestrial target?
This grim scenario has been predicted by Carl Sagan in his letter to Nature and in the "faction" novel Nemesis written by the astronomer Bill Napier. Both items are available in the Library, as are the Chapman/Morrison tables on risk assessment and other related papers.
If asteroids are going to be used as weapons one day in the not too distant future, then the risk assessment of dying from a middle range asteroid must greatly increase from one in 20,000 to about one in 5,000. The death probability as a result of flood or natural catastrophe is rated in the Chapman/Morrison chart as one in 30,000- -the same as flying in an aeroplane. The exceptionally heavy rainfall this year may have at last fired the Prime Minister's enthusiasm to mitigate the greenhouse effects on a world-wide basis. He has apparently agreed to apply £100 million for research on renewable energy resources in order to improve on this statistic. Does the Minister not agree that only a fraction of this sum would be required to implement all the 14 recommendations of the task force?
Therefore, the question I must ask the Minister is this. Why is the alleviation of the risk of comet or asteroid impact not yet recognised by the Government as a necessary expenditure as part of the precautionary principle, which was outlined in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology papers in 1996 and which is supported by the Prime Minister? Do the Government not have an obligation to future generations to look beyond the event horizon of the next general election and to prepare to mitigate future risks from near space?
I understand that the National Trust spends on average £175 million a year on the preservation of our structural heritage, while various government heritage agencies may spend about five times that amount in other works of preservation. Can the Minister therefore say why some of these funds cannot be diverted from the heritage business into, say, the British National Space Centre until an adequate mitigation system is in place to reduce future risks from near earth objects? Alternatively, can he not see a way of persuading the private sector to play some part in financing the essential new British three-metre telescopes, which will be required for the major task of cataloguing the whole of the near earth object spectrum?
The principle of private sector participation has already been established by the Beagle MarsLander. Does the noble Lord not agree that many individuals, as opposed to commercial companies, might be prepared to pay to name a harmless near earth object, out of the 150 million, as a memento for their grandchildren or in memory of someone they have loved? If there is no money from the Government, science will have to find a way, without diluting the science of an issue, to come to terms with the private sector on an agreed way of providing finance. Can the Minister explain why governments seem quite prepared to fund the preservation of our civilised past and yet are unwilling to pay for the protection of the future of our civilisation?
I do not know why, but whenever the subject of fire and brimstone is raised, as I have raised it today, the awful fate of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind. When it does, I take the somewhat heretical view that they succumbed from the impact of near earth objects, not because of their sinful deeds but because they failed to heed the advice given to them by the watchmen at the gates. The watchmen have made their report to your Lordships. We ignore their advice at our peril. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
Lord Hunt of Chesterton: My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, for introducing this debate on near Earth objects, one of the major physical dangers affecting the whole world, including, of course, the UK. Dealing with this danger, as with the other dangers--notably climate change, coastal erosion, natural disasters, the disposal of nuclear wastes and solar influences on the atmosphere--requires scientific research and monitoring, communication with the public and then definite actions to reduce or prevent the danger. If and when such events occur, actions are necessary to mitigate their effects and to recover from them afterwards.
I should like to make a few suggestions about the responses to the specific threat of near earth objects in the light of Dr Atkinson's excellent working party report and of the highly constructive government response. I have to declare a small interest in that I was consulted on one part of the report. I shall conclude by commenting on the broader issue of how the UK and Europe should each have organisations for systematic co-ordination and monitoring of major risks.
From the scientific report, it is clear that the most likely danger is from meteors similar to the Siberian 1908 meteor, with diameters of the order of 100 metres, impacting the atmosphere at about 30,000 miles per hour--20 times the speed of Concorde. Unlike earthquakes, tsunamis or surprise nuclear attacks, such events can be predicted by close monitoring--for at least one year and probably more of the arrival. That is because the earth is not in the asteroid belt, which some Peers of a certain age will remember caused great problems to Dan Dare and Digby, the intrepid space explorers depicted in the Eagle comic of the 1950s--not mentioned in the report, which was perhaps written by younger people. Such asteroid impacts are rare events, as the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, explained to us.
The astronomers who worked on the report--among whom was my colleague, Professor David Williams of University College, to whom I am grateful for something of a briefing--quite rightly emphasised the need for close monitoring of near earth objects and for studies of their movement and composition. I would strongly recommend that, as with weather forecasts, a systematic procedure is introduced for assessing the accuracy of near earth object trajectories and near misses. Noble Lords will recall that President Roosevelt, before relying on weather forecasts for D-day, wanted to have an assessment of their accuracy for a few months beforehand. These forecasts should be quantified and made public. Accurate predictions will be the first step in planning the direct preventive action to be taken.
In the future, the report emphasises that the techniques may be considerably more sophisticated and safer than changing the trajectories of the objects by massive explosions on their surface. The impact of a significant meteor on land causes blast waves, electromagnetic disturbances and eruptions of the earth. These short- term effects, as well as longer-term climatic effects, as we saw with the decline of the dinosaurs, could be more devastating than the largest nuclear bomb explosions. Therefore, I urge the Government to follow the suggestion on page 27 of the report, which, curiously, did not appear in the recommendations, and involve the Ministry of Defence's Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment and the Met Office to apply their enormous computational physics capability to provide quantitative data for the consequences of different scenarios, much as they did for nuclear winter in the 1980s.
However, the report indicates that the most likely danger to the UK and Europe is an impact in the ocean, which would give rise to a huge tidal wave. Geologists and natural disaster experts have pointed out that this would be similar to the kind of waves triggered by sudden movements of the seabed, or mountain movements in the Caribbean or the Canary Islands. Again, the enormous capability of computational prediction in which NERC and university oceanographic institutes would have to become involved, could provide the relevant damage data which European emergency committees would need when considering the scenarios. However, one hopes that they would not rely on computer-generated data at the last minute.
From my experience of running a government agency and working with government departments, including the British National Space Centre--which has been the recipient of hard criticism; to that end, I do not entirely accept the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, that it is merely a postbox--I believe that the organisational response of the Government is correct, given the present arrangements in the UK and Europe. The problems associated with near earth objects are to be directed by the BNSC, with a strong emphasis on collaboration with the European Space Agency. I hope that the Minister and the Government Chief Scientist will ensure that BNSC plays a major role both in research and in working with UK industry in the task of constructing small satellites and telescopes.
As scientific understanding matures and is better communicated, BNSC should also work with the insurance industry to enable organisations and even entire countries to take out insurance against these risks. This, I believe, would be the most specific involvement on the part of the private sector. It is worth pointing out that people have taken out insurance policies within a few hours of a hurricane arriving in their vicinity. One can imagine what might happen if a warning of a near earth object was issued.
In conclusion, I should emphasise that this danger highlights the need for a more systematic and permanent arrangement for the UK Government and Europe to monitor and co-ordinate activities to tackle major physical dangers and to be able to do so over long periods which may last for hundreds of years. In the United States, the substantial policy arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deals with these matters, as well as an involvement by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. However, in the UK many small research and operational agencies, along with advisory bodies such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Commission on Sustainable Development need to co-ordinate their efforts. The Government Chief Scientist works extremely hard, but no technical co- ordination agency has been set up to prioritise and keep under review all these major dangers. Such a body would be preferable to another ad hoc unit, as has been advocated in the report and which appears to be advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw.
Eventually, Europe should set up a major risks agency to match the United States equivalent. I am not at all sure- -the Government have implied this as well--that this should be passed over to a committee of the OECD. I believe that we need to consider a new way forward.
I shall conclude by asking the Government whether they will suggest to the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering that they should look into the general question. Noble Lords in this House would then have an opportunity to review their deliberations in the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.
Lord Razzall: My Lords, the irony of the timing of this debate will not be lost on those noble Lords who have always accepted the adage coined by Harold Wilson; namely, that a week is a long time in politics. As we debate issues that should be considered in the extreme long term, in another place Members are debating a Budget that will have a shelf life of a year or perhaps two at the most. Clearly, the matter of near earth objects and their effects is a fundamentally long-term issue. Those noble Lords who have read the report of the task force will have seen that the implications of our debate range in time from a collision millions of years ago which resulted in the elimination of the dinosaurs to an unknown future scenario. On page 16, a table indicates that, if an object 16 kilometres in diameter were to hit us, it would,
"threaten[s] survival of all advanced life forms". Clearly, this matter is serious. The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, mentioned that in certain quarters the threat is regarded as something of "a giggle". However, it is far more important than that and is worthy of significant debate.
Noble Lords will agree, first, that thanks are due to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, for raising this issue. Secondly, I thought that he was extremely gracious when he commended my colleague in another place, Lembit Opik, who has been instrumental in bringing this matter to the attention of the Government. Thirdly, many thanks are due to the Minister for having taken on board the implications of these issues and for having taken seriously the recommendations now being put forward by the Government.
I shall take up the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, that we should add a little drama to the matter by attributing names to near earth objects. I can see that an object called an "Opik" would have a certain Estonian resonance. I am not so certain about a "Tanlaw", but to call a near earth object a "Sainsbury" would give a new meaning to the name among our shoppers.
The Government have made it clear that there has been a significant change in their thinking on near earth objects., They have accepted, first, that there is a recognised threat and, secondly, that surveys, follow-up orbit and spectroscopic programmes, along with greater scientific understanding, have a significant role to play in the developing international programme. They have also indicated that, later in the year, a second and more detailed announcement will be made regarding progress in this area.
I hope that the Minister will not think that I am seeking to remove any of the congratulations that I know he deserves if I now probe him on a number of points that we feel should be reflected in any subsequent statements and announcements. The key recommendation of the task force is that an advanced 3 metre class survey telescope should be put in place as quickly as possible. It will need to be a first-class, state-of- the-art instrument with a long competitive life because it will be fundamental to the exercise of forecasting. When we next debate this issue, we shall want to know that the Government have made significant progress in securing that telescope, which I understand is being contemplated on an international basis. Such progress will be absolutely vital.
As regards the government responses to the recommendations, I shall need to introduce a slight carping note into my comments. First, their response to recommendation 7, that the operation of the Minor Planet Survey should be put on a "robust international footing", will cause any noble Lord a degree of concern. I hope that the Minister will be able to use the opportunity of our debate today to give further assurances on that issue.
Potentially worrying too is the Government's response to recommendation 9, which states that,
"the Government, with other governments, set in hand studies to look into the practical possibilities of mitigating the results of impact and deflecting incoming objects". That is obviously bureaucratic-speak for, "What are the Government going to do to prevent us being obliterated by near earth objects?" Anyone reading the Government's response would consider it to be also in bureaucratic-speak and somewhat luke warm. I am not suggesting that noble Lords should embark immediately on interplanetary travel to avoid the impact. This is a serious matter and I hope that when the Government report again a more detailed response will be given on what exactly will happen in this area.
Recommendation 12, which relates to the British National Space Centre, has come in for a certain amount of criticism. I am conscious of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who indicated that he regarded the criticisms of the BNSC as not satisfactory. However, concern has been expressed about the BNSC. The recommendation is that there should be a government department with responsibility for NEOs. However, the BNSC is not, in essence, a government department but an amalgam of different entities within government, staffed by people who are often seconded from elsewhere. The concern is that the BNSC would not be an adequate sponsoring department.
I am sure that noble Lords would be absolutely delighted if the view was taken that the Minister and his department should take on this responsibility in response to the recommendation of the task force, using obviously the BNSC. People are always nervous when organisations that have representations from across Whitehall and elsewhere are given responsibility for a particular issue. Joined-up government does not always remain joined-up, or it cracks, and we should be grateful for assurances from the Minister on that point.
My final point is that the task force strongly recommended that a UK near earth object centre should be set up. This centre should be independent of any government organisation and in a position to assist the Government in carrying out the programme outlined in the report. Close observers of this issue are concerned that that recommendation is not being followed through by the Government. I hope that when the Minister replies he will respond to that point, at least by saying that, when he next reports to the House later in the year, that issue will have been dealt with.
Having made what might appear to the Minister to be carping criticisms, I return to the original congratulations which I know everyone in the House and elsewhere feel are due to the Minister for taking on board this issue. He has taken it seriously and has come forward with some interesting and radical proposals.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, in 1979, a large meteorite capable of wiping out most of life on earth was detected on a direct collision course with earth. Disaster was averted by the collaboration of the Americans and the Soviet Union who, in a co-ordinated effort, fired salvoes of atomic rockets at the object. In 1998, a similar object was detected and broken up and the pieces deflected as a result of the bravery of a crew of oil drillers who were landed on it by space shuttle and planted a hydrogen bomb deep under the surface.
In case any of your Lordships are wondering how you failed to read reports in the press of these momentous- -I nearly said earth-shattering-- events, perhaps I may tell you that they were the plots of two science fiction films, respectively "Meteor" and "Armageddon". There was another, more recent film, "Deep Impact", which I would rather not discuss as in that film, despite every international effort, the earth was destroyed.
But we are not discussing some fanciful piece of science fiction hokum; we are talking about what the Minister of Science described as "an extremely remote risk" but one which "we cannot ignore". How remote is, of course, a matter of degree. We were told by the Minister that,
"we are talking about once every 100,000 years for a very serious incident". A mere 49,000 years ago a meteor left a crater in Arizona almost three-quarters of a mile wide, just like one on the moon. Not 100,000 years later but in 1908, during the lifetime of many people still living, including some distinguished, still active Members of your Lordships' House, an object only 60 metres--three cricket pitches--across exploded five miles up in the atmosphere and devastated 2,000 square kilometres of Siberian forest. A few seconds more of flight and it could have exploded over Britain.
On 7th April 1990, a house in Holland was demolished by a small object, and on 9th October 1992 a meteorite weighing just 26 pounds went right through the rear of a parked car, leaving a crater in the driveway. Indeed, the definition of a "potentially dangerous object" is one whose orbit comes within 46 million miles of earth and is at least 160 yards in diameter. As recently as 10th August 1998, an asteroid two miles wide passed within six hours of the earth. That is very close in space terms.
The report lists 12 objects, ranging in size from 6 metres to 1,000 metres, that have come within 70,000 to 500,000 miles of the earth since 1989. So far, 258 potentially dangerous objects have been discovered. I stress "so far" because the survey is in an early stage and is still continuing.
Should your Lordships want to see something which I regard as frightening, I suggest that you look at the diagram on page 9 of the report and at the almost solid line of orbits which is shown in yellow. That shows 800 asteroids which cross the earth's orbit and which are potentially dangerous.
Every year 50,000 tonnes of space rock hit the earth. That is about 5.75 tonnes every hour. Of course, we are assured that most of it is made up of space dust and small meteorites which burn up in the atmosphere. Just as well. The thought of being struck by half a pea travelling at 40,000 miles an hour is not something that anyone would wish to contemplate.
Indeed, after I read the report and the Government's response, I wondered how I had got myself involved in this debate, but I do thank the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, for introducing it and for allowing me to learn so much about this subject. However, before I read the material, and not being a fan of science fiction films, I was blissfully ignorant of what the Minister reassuringly described as "an extremely remote risk". Now I could go to bed worrying in case a meteor will wipe out life on earth as we know it.
Before I leave the subject of risk, which has been eloquently described in the report, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the photographs on page 11 of the report of the asteroid Eros. It is more than 20 miles long and eight miles wide and is pitted with craters where other meteorites and asteroids have hit it, one of them leaving a crater three miles in diameter. Later photographs, taken by the spacecraft as it landed on Eros, showed the surface littered with boulders that have struck it over the past 4.5 billion years--and Eros is a comparatively small object in space; it is smaller than Greater London. We are lucky to have the earth's thick atmosphere to burn away or bounce back into space the material which lands on us every minute.
The Minister is to be congratulated on having taken note of the concerns of the honourable Member for Montgomeryshire, whose astronomer grandfather had an asteroid named after him, who raised this matter so well in an adjournment debate on 3rd March 2000. The Minister set up the task force, the comprehensive report of which we are debating today.
The task force makes a series of 14 recommendations, but I need not take up your Lordships' time by repeating them. Largely it calls for a vastly extended network of observatories to monitor these near earth objects, entailing co- operation between international agencies and setting up those agencies. On the face of it, the Government's response is positive, at least as positive as the circumstances will permit. The Government will review how the United Kingdom telescope facilities can be used to identify potentially hazardous near earth objects; setting up a facility to provide information on near earth objects and getting the European Space Agency to convene a conference this year to discuss Europe's role; and getting the OECD to consider setting up an international discussion and action forum.
I do not want to detract from the importance of the subject that we are discussing, nor in any way to denigrate the Government's response. However, what we are discussing is an admittedly highly remote possibility--a danger about which, in reality, there is probably not very much that we can do alone, though perhaps we can do a little more with international partners.
I should like the Minister to tell us just how much money the Government will put into the project and what expectation there is that other countries will contribute their share, bearing in mind that we have shortages of funds for very urgent and real life daily problems in areas like the health service, education and crime prevention. Which will be the priority? How will one balance out with another?
The report says that the USA is doing more about NEOs than the rest of the world put together. This is, of course, due to the almost limitless funding that Congress is prepared to give to the space programme, coupled with the military benefits obtainable from its satellites. I suspect that it will not be too long before someone realises that the revived Star Wars project might also have the civilian use of blasting meteorites out of the sky, as well as hostile missiles.
There is, as I read the Government's response, no promise of immediate money, or new money, for research and observation for early warning of these NEOs. I do not say this in any critical sense, because I do not actually see what the Government could do on their own without the support, both financial and technical, of international partners, which is what recommendation 1 urged them to seek. The Government do indeed promise discussions with various bodies, including exploring the plans of the European Space Agency and co- operating with NASA.
The Government's response does in general terms accept the recommendations of the report, but these are about observation of and sharing information about NEOs. Having spotted them, what is to be done about them? I am glad to see that the Government intend to discuss the matter at the forthcoming meeting of the Inter- Agency Debris Coordination Committee steering group--rather a long title-- because if the clutter produced when the solar system came into existence is going to be a perpetual danger, our skies are also full of dangerous bits and pieces left over from space exploration. Not the least is what happens when the Russian Soyuz weighing a couple of hundred tonnes soon falls to earth. The Russians say that they will be able to control it, and I should like to believe them, as I am sure is the case with all noble Lords. But I still remember when one of their rockets went out of control in the 1980s: it fell to earth we knew not where, until it was tracked, fortunately, to the Australian desert.
I am also glad to see that the report will be discussed by the UN Scientific and Technical Sub-Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space. Clearly the inhibition of the use of atomic missiles in space will have to be reviewed. The report very briefly discusses the possibility of mitigating the consequences of an impact from a near earth object, as the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, mentioned. Moving people from areas likely to be affected by a small object could save lives, but could not, I believe, prevent substantial damage.
However, I question whether it will be possible to determine with any degree of accuracy where one of these things is going to land before it is too late for anyone to do anything about it. Blowing it up, as dramatically shown in the films that I mentioned earlier, is said to be likely to cause even greater damage because of the proliferation of the bits that will fly around and hit the earth. There is a suggestion of nudging the meteor out of its dangerous orbit. I am not clear how a small space craft would be able to nudge a large object travelling at tens of thousands of miles an hour without suffering fatal damage itself at the first contact. I say that as an aside, following the experience of my husband a couple of weeks ago. He made a very slight and very low speed contact with our garage wall, causing the most severe damage to the aerodynamics of his front wing but none at all to the wall!
The Government say that the United Kingdom,
"has a great deal to bring to an international approach to the problem". They point out our strong record as a leader in the field of astronomy, involvement in international observatories and our technical expertise in telescope design and construction, in small satellite technology and in what are called "charged-coupled devices" (or CCDs), which can detect both visible and infra-red light and produce images that can be seen on a screen.
The world has now been alerted to a danger that was perhaps, until quite recently, not appreciated. I am sure that the Minister will tell us that, having regard to our national expertise, as just mentioned, the fact that the report is the first comprehensive review of the subject and the excellent reception that the report has already received internationally will place us in an influential position in the field.
In its history, Britain--Great Britain-- has enjoyed a leading place in science and scientific research. I hope that it will do so in this case, for it may have major implications for the future of the whole human race and, indeed, for planet earth itself.
The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, I should like to begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, on securing this debate on the work of the Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects. While the chances of a major incident are very remote, this is a serious issue and one where the UK, with our considerable expertise, should give an international lead.
The noble Lord takes a close interest in these matters as chairman of the All- Party Parliamentary Astronomy and Space Environment Group. He first brought the issue to the attention of your Lordships' House in a Question that he tabled in June 1999. In the subsequent discussion, I emphasised the importance of taking this topic forward on an international basis. The issue was also brought to Parliament's attention in another place by Lembit Opik MP in March 1999. Since then, Mr Opik has continued to work with his characteristic enthusiasm to bring the topic into the mainstream. I should reiterate the point already made by the noble Baroness that there is already an asteroid called "The Opik", which I believe was named after his grandfather, from whom he derives his interest. I believe that a "Razzall", though not a "Sainsbury", would be a very attractive name for an asteroid.
The Government's international approach to the issue was evinced by the leading role played by the UK in the resolution of the Vienna Declaration on Space and Human Development. This was agreed at a special meeting of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in July 1999. The resolution urged that action should be taken to improve the international co-ordination of activities related to near earth objects, harmonising world efforts directed at identification and follow- up and orbit prediction.
In view of the importance attached to the issue by the Government and others, I announced on 4th January 2000 the setting up of a Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects. The task force was charged with confirming the nature of the hazard and potential levels of risk, identifying the current contribution to international efforts and advising the Government on what further action to take in the light of them. The task force, consisting of Sir Crispin Tickell and Professor David Williams, under the distinguished chairmanship of Dr Harry Atkinson, reported on 18th September 2000. I believe that the standard and depth of the discussion we have just heard is a reflection of the quality of the report of the task force.
It is only over the past decade that the significance of near earth objects in our earth's history has begun to be understood. Since its formation, our world has been bombarded by comets and asteroids, ranging in size from those that are smaller than pebbles to lumps of rock measuring kilometres across. Hundreds of tonnes of space dust enter our atmosphere on a daily basis. The larger pieces of grit can be seen burning up in our atmosphere as spectacular shooting stars. Indeed, this is what happens to by far the greater proportion of the asteroids that encounter the earth--they burn up harmlessly, as the noble Baroness rightly pointed out, in our atmosphere. We have a defence against most asteroids provided for us by nature.
So what is the risk of a major incident? The long-term risk of dying as a consequence of a near earth object impact is estimated at around one in 25,000 per person. As a crude statistical average, this amounts to about the same level of risk as that of dying in a plane crash. However, it is worth remembering that that risk is of a very different nature to those that are more familiar. In the case of comets and asteroids we are talking about very infrequent events involving huge numbers of people. Plane crashes are, tragically, a relatively--I stress the word "relatively"--frequent occurrence, with, by comparison, a relatively small number of fatalities. There are, in fact, no confirmed instances in recent history of death by an asteroid or meteor impact, save for an unlucky dog in North Africa in 1911.
There is, however, a considerable amount of evidence about past incidents that had a major effect and which, had they occurred at the present time, would have resulted in a huge number of fatalities. Because of the nature of this risk, it is difficult to make a case for large extra funds to be made available for this area. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, that I find it hard to see how one could obtain private funds for this field. I can envisage only two circumstances in that regard: a situation where there is no disaster and therefore the publicity value is rather small and a disaster situation when people may not want a lot of publicity for their products. Therefore, I do not think we can look to private funds, which even in the case of Beagle 2 have not been large.
My role as Minister for Science is to seek a balance between the overreaction which could be induced by the thought of "global killer" asteroids and any complacency arising from the rarity of such impacts. The level of threat which I have just described is very much an estimate. We do not know for certain how many objects are out there. Of those that have been discovered, not all the orbits are known accurately. We cannot be sure of the frequency with which they will hit us. Without a better understanding of the nature and level of the threat, any attempt to devise a measured response will be hampered by the paucity of our knowledge.
However, what we can be certain of is that if an asteroid or comet is heading towards us, it is essential that we know as soon as possible so as to assess its likely effects and the range of possible options in response. That is why the whole question of monitoring is of the utmost importance. The question was raised as to what the response would be and whether there would be a response. There certainly could be sensible responses. It might, for instance, be feasible in the case of a small asteroid or comet, perhaps impacting into a distant ocean, to move people away from the area likely to be affected, for example, by tidal waves. In the case of a larger potential impact we would need to consider deflection. I say in answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, about deflection, that useful work relevant to these circumstances is already under way. The US near Shoemaker mission to Eros recently dramatically demonstrated the capability to rendezvous with, and land on, an asteroid. Data from that mission suggest that Eros has a rather loose structure, which is obviously relevant to any consideration of how to push it to one side.
Future missions such as the US Deep Impact Project will determine the composition of the comet by firing a probe at it to see what flies up from the large crater on its surface. This test will also show the possibilities for deflection. I think, however, it is well to remember in this context the comments of the science fiction writer, Carl Sagan, who acknowledged in a letter to the journal Nature that the development of asteroid deflection technology at this time would be premature and that, in the light of well established human frailty and fallibility, may introduce a new category of danger that dwarfs that posed by near earth objects themselves. It is worth remembering that that would be a difficult matter to assess.
One of the principal conclusions of the report of the Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects is that we need to know more about such matters. I very much agree. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, that the key issue is monitoring and making certain that the monitoring is accurate. I am not sure that at this point we need to do any more work on the consequences of such events as I think that they would be disastrous in almost all circumstances.
The Government's response to the task force's report was published on 24th February and a variety of work is now being taken forward in this area. Several of the task force's recommendations concerned adapting telescope facilities to which the UK has access to find, track and characterise near earth objects. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council has undertaken to analyse costed options for how these recommendations could best be implemented.
In particular, the decision announced by the Secretary of State on 21st November 2000 that the UK intends to join the European Southern Observatory will both allow the UK access to a variety of telescopes in the southern hemisphere and also free up existing facilities for new uses. I look forward very much to the completion of the PPARC's report later this year.
I say in answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, that we have no extra funds for these activities. They will have to compete with the activities which we already undertake in the field of space and astronomy. It is worth making the point that we spend considerable sums on astronomy. In that context it seems not inappropriate to direct a modest amount to determine whether any asteroid or comet could endanger us.
My reference to the European Southern Observatory leads me on to the importance of the wider astronomical and international community in this issue. If any issue could be said to be truly global, it is the threat to the earth from near earth objects. An asteroid does not discriminate in its choice of landing site and all countries are in this together. I am therefore convinced that an international approach to this problem is essential. We all need to play our part. However, I believe that the UK, by capitalising on the favourable international reception of the task force's report, can play a leading role in encouraging other nations' and organisations' involvement in combating this threat.
Certainly the task force's report has stimulated activity within Europe. The European Space Agency has undertaken to convene a meeting to discuss a common European approach to the near earth objects issue. It has specified the capabilities of two future space missions, which will include the ability to discover and track potentially hazardous asteroids. The European Science Foundation and the European Southern Observatory are keen to contribute to this discussion. By the end of this year I hope to see a plan in place as to how Europe can best contribute to international efforts in this area.
Here in the UK we shall also be setting up improved arrangements to deal with near earth objects. As recommended by the task force, a single government department will take the lead in near earth object policy. The British National Space Centre has considerable expertise in this area and a partnership structure bringing together all other interested parties within government. I therefore believe that it is appropriate for it to take the role as lead unit within government on this topic. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, that the British National Space Centre is just a post-box. In fact, it is a very effective body which brings together the many bodies which have an interest in space. It is an early and extremely good example of joined-up government.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, that I do not think that there is a need for co-ordination with other bodies; what we need is co- ordination of all the bodies which have an interest in space, which range from defence to the Meteorological Office and the astronomy community, so that we can deal effectively with this particular body. I say that because the disasters which have been mentioned are all of a different kind. We need to focus on the ones which particularly relate to space.
I also concur with the view expressed by the task force that there is a need for some kind of facility to provide clear and balanced information to the public on near earth objects. Reporting of this issue can range from the alarmist to the derisive. To counter this the Government plan to set up a facility whose role would be to act as a showcase for the public on near earth object issues. The facility should provide a clear and objective introduction to the topic and in the process further the Government's wider aim of increasing public understanding of topical science issues. I do not think we should simply decide that one body, even if it is as distinguished as the one at Armagh, should do this job. It would be better to introduce competition. We should seek advice not from one body but from all the best experts around the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Razzall, raised the question of funding of the Minor Planet Center. We welcome the work of that body in identifying and cataloguing near earth objects. We shall work with the European Space Agency, NASA and the International Astronomical Union to find a sound financial basis for the centre. Again, there has to be an international sharing of the costs.
I stated earlier that I believe that my role as Minister for Science responsible for the near earth objects issue is to steer a course between overreaction to exaggerated threat and complacent inactivity. I believe that the Government's balanced response to the task force's comprehensive and objective report achieves that. The chairman of the task force, Dr Harry Atkinson, has said that he welcomes the general thrust of the Government's response to the recommendations of the task force which represents a major breakthrough for the UK. Lembit Opik, who has been instrumental in raising public and parliamentary awareness of the topic, is quoted as saying that the Government's response,
"puts the UK at the forefront of asteroid avoidance. This is a very exciting time for British science in general, and British astronomy in particular". I can assure the House that the Government attach the highest importance to taking this work forward. The task force's report has already achieved one of its objectives by acting as a catalyst for international action. I look forward to the UK working with its international partners in combating the threat to our fragile planet of objects from space.
Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate; and I thank the Cross-Bench Members for their support in allowing me to introduce the debate. It has been an interesting discussion. It would not be correct to say that it has been wide ranging; it has been completely focused on the subject. The debate has been educational to me and, I am sure, helpful. We must address this subject. The Minister for Science has reassured us that the subject is in good hands. Many of us would hope that if, God forbid, a near earth object were on a collision course for earth we would have someone as sensible as the present Minister for Science to tell us how to avoid it. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.