CCNet SPECIAL: THE SPACEGUARD DEBATE IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS A RARE MOMENT OF SCIENCE AND POLITICS AT THEIR BEST

It's 10.36 pm on Wednesday, 3 March 1999. Whilst most people in the United Kingdom are about to go to bed, the House of Commons is set for an exciting, enlightened and, at times, hilarious debate about the impact hazard and our precarious place in space. It's a rare moment of science and politics at their best. If only we could witness more often such well researched and good humoured debates in the Mother of Parliaments - and perhaps a wee-bit earlier.....

I have attached yesterday's entire Spaceguard debate for all list members to enjoy. Let us hope that Mr Öpik's initiative will actually result in the proposed Spaceguard project at the Armagh Observatory.

Benny J Peiser

From HANSARD (House of Commons Daily Debates)

Spaceguard Project

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

10.36 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I have a big problem with asteroids--

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): What?

Mr. Öpik: Asteroids. And so has the rest of the human race. Unless we do something to stop it, sooner or later an impact with an asteroid or a comet will lead to the end of most life on Earth.

My grandfather, Ernst Julius Öpik, was a professional astronomer in Estonia and then at the Armagh observatory in Northern Ireland. He specialised in comet and meteorite impacts on other bodies. His work led to an asteroid being named after him by the astronomer Eleanor Helin. I guess that I may have to move to Öpik's asteroid out in space one day if I lose Montgomeryshire for the Liberal Democrats.

Last year, when NASA stated that an asteroid was coming towards the Earth, I mentioned to a journalist that I hoped that it was not Öpik's asteroid, prompting him to write an article with the headline "MP to Blame for the End of the World". He at least saw the serious side of the debate.

The impact hazard comes from so-called Earth-crossers. They intersect the Earth's orbit. If we wait long enough, one will certainly hit us. Earth-crossers are leftovers from the early days of the solar system. Think of the solar system as a cosmic building site. When God made the planets, he had a lot of bits left over. When he had finished, he did not sweep them up. They range in size from dust particles to objects hundreds of miles across. They float about in space between the planets, sometimes crashing into them.

Small crashes happen all the time. Rocks that burn up in the atmosphere without hitting the ground are called meteors or shooting stars. Every shooting star is a tiny bit of space dirt, just a few millimetres or centimetres across, which ends its life in a bright streak as it evaporates in the Earth's atmosphere. For a dust particle, I guess that that is a pretty cool way to go.

Bigger crashes are not as common. Objects that reach ground level are called meteorites. They range in size from a few kilogrammes to much bigger objects. On 9 October 1992, a 12 kg meteorite fell in Peekskill, New York, (996K MPG movie) punching a hole in the rear end of a car parked in a driveway and coming to rest in a shallow depression beneath it. It went all the way through the car and on to the road. I would love to have seen the driver's insurance claim.. Apparently, she sold the car to a museum for a handsome profit.

Even bigger crashes are less common, but far more explosive. On the evening of 30 June 1908, a small comet-like object exploded in the atmosphere above the Tunguska river valley in Siberia. It had the explosive power of 10 million tonnes of TNT. It flattened trees for 20 km in all directions and killed hundreds of reindeer. If the Tunguska object had entered the atmosphere over Westminster, everything within the M25 would have been destroyed.

We can expect two or three such objects to collide with the Earth every century, but it gets really scary when the objects are 500 m in diameter or bigger. An object 1 km wide hitting land would destroy an area the size of Germany, raise enough dust to affect the climate, destroy the ozone layer and freeze crops owing to the darkness of what we often call a nuclear winter. For various reasons, an ocean impact would be even worse: it would create tidal waves called tsunamis on a hemispheric scale, and would kill a large proportion of more complex life forms--including us.

The explosive effect of an object 1 km wide is about 100,000 million tonnes of TNT. Anything larger than that--wider than 1 or 2 km--is called a global killer. That means that the impact of a 10 km object would wipe out seven of every 10 life forms on Earth. Devastation on such a level is almost beyond comprehension, but we know that it has happened before, and it will definitely happen again.

How big is the risk? There is plenty of evidence on our doorstep that this is not millennium madness. Every year, about 50,000 tonnes of space rock hit the Earth. In the half-hour of this debate, more than 2.5 tonnes will descend on us from space. The big ones are hanging out there, of course, but most of that is made up of specks of dust and small meteorites.

In 1930, three meteorites landed in Brazil, causing shock waves which could be felt in La Paz, Bolivia. At midnight on 10 August last year, we nearly lost the cosmic lottery: an asteroid 1.6 km wide passed within six hours of the Earth. In space terms, that is very close. It equates to the Leader of the Opposition standing at the Dispatch Box, throwing a marble at the Prime Minister in a fit of pique, and missing his head by 2 mm. That is a sobering thought.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): He would have lost his marbles.

Mr. Öpik: I think it unnecessary to point out that, unfortunately, the Leader of the Opposition has already lost his marbles.

Had that giant rock hit the Earth, we would not be here to discuss it. A dust cloud would have enveloped the globe for months, and would have stopped photosynthesis. Plants would have died. The shutdown of world agriculture would have certainly put the talks on the common agricultural policy in the shade!

The blast would have been followed by a wave--a tsunami--that would have risen to 4 km in shallow coastal waters. The summit of Ben Nevis would have been more than a mile below water. Much of human achievement would have been lost, and survivors would have been left scavenging for life, every day a dark, cold fight for existence.

The most recent big impact occurred next door. Five years ago, a few visitors dropped in on a neighbour of ours, Jupiter. Fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter in 20 pieces in one week in July 1994. The impacts produced Earth-sized scars in the Jovian atmosphere. That was an example of what we call "streams"--when a series of objects impact one after the other, in quick succession. With an expectation of one such impact every 1,000 to 2,000 years, the Jovians might have taken a relaxed view of the chance of being hit more than once. In fact, they were hit 20 times in one week. That was bad luck for the Jovians, but a good lesson for us. Of course, no one actually lives on Jupiter, but a lot of people live on Earth.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): By courtesy of the British Geological Survey, I had the good fortune to have dinner, after a lecture that he had given, with the late Eugene Shoemaker, who died tragically in Australia. His considered opinion was that the position merited some action, because it was as dangerous as the hon. Gentleman makes out.

Mr. Öpik: I know that the hon. Gentleman is very interested in the subject. He is right to draw attention to the extraordinary contribution made by Eugene Shoemaker, who, in the last 10 years, created an atmosphere in which the whole question of asteroid and comet impacts could be taken seriously.

Here on Earth, the biggest evidence of global killers comes from 65 million years ago. This is a subject that Eugene Shoemaker often discussed. An asteroid 10 km wide fell on Chicxulub in the Yucatan peninsula, in Mexico. It extinguished about 70 per cent. of life on Earth, and wiped out the dinosaurs. On average, such events are expected to occur every 30 million years or so, but, as with buses, you wait for ages and then 20 come along at once--as the Jovians found out.

There is other evidence. The moon is cratered simply because of such impacts. Interestingly, the moon itself was probably caused by the impact of a Mars-sized object hitting the Earth, with the moon splashing out from our planet about 4,500 million years ago. Our solar system is not peaceful--we are living in a cosmic shooting gallery, where planets and other bodies are still colliding.

When will the next global killer strike the Earth? The next major impact could be 100,000 years away, or it could be two minutes away. Unfortunately, we do not know where all these things are, so we will be caught by surprise if one of the unexpected, untracked and undetected objects comes our way. We could have as little as 20 seconds warning before being incinerated in the catastrophic aftermath of the impact and explosion. That is not enough time even to say the Lord's prayer.

Mr. Sanders: Someone will page us.

Mr. Öpik: My hon. Friend is being optimistic if he thinks that he will be paged by our Chief Whip in such an eventuality.

Even though the impact represents the greatest environmental danger there is--far greater than an all-out nuclear war--until recently, the subject has been regarded as a joke. When I originally asked about the threats, we contacted the Ministry of Defence, which said that it was really a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The DETR passed us on to the Home Office, which suggested the Department of Trade and Industry.

In desperation, we asked the Library for advice. Having listened to our asteroid story and heard of the level of devastation that a reasonably large object could cause, there was silence, before the librarian asked whether we had thought about contacting the Archbishop of Canterbury. Impacts are part of science, not religion.

They are a part of cosmic life, as well as ours. The new element is that we homo sapiens are the first species on Earth not only to appreciate the dangers, but to be in a position to do something about them. We have the technology to avert this brand of Armageddon.

Mr. Sanders: Is my hon. Friend familiar with the recent film "Armageddon"? Does he see the solution as being to send Bruce Willis up to the asteroid to drill a big hole and to let off a nuclear weapon which disperses the asteroid? Is that fantasy land, or the kind of preventive measure that we will have to take?

Mr. Öpik: Following their earlier performance, I suggest that we consider asking for volunteers from the official Opposition for that role. However, if the Minister gives an unsatisfactory response, we might ask him to volunteer. The serious point that my hon. Friend makes is right. Although the science, in places, is a bit shaky in "Armageddon", the concept is spot-on.

The impacts are part of science, but they are also part of economics. It is surprising that one is twice as likely to be killed by an asteroid impact as in a plane crash, and it is six times more likely that that would happen than dying by tornado. As for beef on the bone, the chances of dying from food poisoning, including BSE, are one in 3 million--100 times less likely than being killed by an asteroid impact. Unfortunately, we cannot ban asteroids. If we could, it would make a far bigger practical difference to public health than the current ban on beef on the bone. That is food for thought for all of us.

With the odds as they are, by doing nothing about asteroids and comets, we are all taking part in a great cosmic game of roulette. These flying roulette balls have a completely different effect, depending on size. As I have said, the smallest objects are shooting stars, which cause little damage. However, with the 1 km-wide objects, we must do two things--track and divert. We must track them, so we know what is coming towards us, and divert them to avert Armageddon.

We have the technology to track the objects, but we are tracking only about 10 per cent. of them. We cannot save the world if we see these objects too late. Ideally, we want a few years' notice of a potential impact. We could then nudge them into a modified orbit using rockets or nuclear explosions, as in the films "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact", or we could use a more exotic solution involving solar sails. The nudge need only be small because, in cosmic terms, Earth is a small target--it is easier to miss us than to hit us. A little tap to divert the orbit soon enough will mean that life goes on as the rock flies by.

There are about 2,000 near-Earth asteroids and possibly a similar number of extinct comets not yet found and not bright enough to be discovered with existing instruments. Objects less than about 10 km across can be diverted in principle, as long as we have years, or perhaps decades, in which to plan. Larger objects, and even the 1 km long-period comets, are harder to deal with because we have less warning, but they constitute only a small part of the threat, or actuarial risk.

The blockbusters show the way. As the films show, there are a few enlightened people beyond Hollywood who are trying to deal with the problem in a serious fashion. The Spaceguard Foundation is an international organisation which aims to track all large Earth- threatening objects--all the global killers--and its work could be crucial to our future.

According to NASA, the estimated cost of setting up six telescopes and a global network comes to about £36 million, with roughly £6.25 million a year running costs. That would be spread among various countries, with none paying more than £5 million towards set-up, and perhaps about £500,000 a year running costs. The United Kingdom has important expertise and people who can make a real contribution to the international effort.

Governments internationally should establish formal recognition of Spaceguard and the United Kingdom should establish a national centre to contribute to the international effort. Armagh observatory is a world- renowned centre of excellence, considered one of the best centres of minor planet astronomy anywhere. It is the right place for our Spaceguard centre to be located, and perhaps the Minister will consider visiting it.

To set up the centre and the feasibility study group would cost about £4.56 million over 10 years; that is less than £500,000 a year, and would provide an important first step to the larger project. For comparison, that is less than 2 per cent. of the cost of the millennium dome. McDonald's has given £12 million sponsorship to the dome, which is more than the entire cost of UK participation in Spaceguard over 10 years. That is an amazing statistic.

Impacts of objects of about 1 km across represent a greater cost than £100 million in human life alone. Any insurance company must take seriously the opportunity to detect a danger for £1 million a year to save possibly £99 million a year. It is only because it is unusual to think about the space threat that action has not already been taken.

Diverting the objects that are heading towards us is more expensive, but I have to believe that if we find something coming towards us the human race will be sufficiently focused to work together to divert what would literally be a global catastrophe.

In the past, asteroid impacts have had something of a giggle factor. Those talking about them have been seen as cranks. At last, we have a Minister who takes the issue seriously. He has been well advised by his experts to do so. Some hon. Members may have been laughing about it, but one does not see many dinosaurs laughing about it these days.

One is more likely to die in an asteroid impact than to win the national lottery, unless one does the lottery for 100,000 years, in which case one will probably both win the lottery and die in an asteroid impact, although I suspect that only Glenn Hoddle is in a position to find out.

I ask the Minister not to commit the Government to massive expenditure, but simply to arrange meetings between his Department and experts such as Professor Mark Bailey, who follows my grandfather in being director of Armagh observatory, Major Tate from Spaceguard UK and many other international partners in the field.

I am sure that such meetings will underline the importance of serious UK involvement. This is not idle scaremongering. I do not set myself up as Parliament's Nostradamus any more than I set up the Minister as the Government's Bruce Willis, set to save the world from global catastrophe; although one never sees the Minister and Bruce Willis in the same room at the same time.

The last time a huge asteroid hit the Earth, it wiped out the dinosaurs. We are next in line for extinction. I am sure that new Labour does not want to be responsible for wiping out humanity and allowing the cockroaches to inherit the Earth. We have come too far to let it all end in a searing moment of heat and light and the long dark winter which would follow.

For once in our history as a species, let us think long term and make a plan to ensure that civilisation can continue to flourish and that life in all its wonderful diverse forms can still inhabit an extraordinary place called Earth.

10.55 pm

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) on raising this subject. I thought his speech was an excellent example of a clear and interesting explanation of some good science. It is not easy to explain physics and astronomy, but the hon. Gentleman showed tonight that they are not beyond popular comprehension. He presented the subject with some seriousness, spiced with wit, and made a marvellous speech to get science debated in the Chamber and, perhaps, outside it, more urgently than it has been in the past.

I am more than willing to give the hon. Gentleman the commitments that he sought tonight. First, I will take the subject seriously, because we should, and secondly, I will follow up the matter with my colleague Lord Sainsbury who, as Minister for Science, is responsible for space matters at the Department of Trade and Industry. I should be happy to have meetings with the hon. Gentleman, the people at Armagh and officials to take the debate further. I would also be more than happy to find the time to visit the Armagh observatory, which is funded by the Government through the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council--PPARC. I take every opportunity to visit Northern Ireland for family reasons and I should like to visit the observatory and see some of the work that it does.

In recent weeks, we have discussed biotechnology and we now have the ability to observe activity at the cellular level, deep inside. We have also developed our capacity to reach far out into the universe and we should not ignore what we find. Indeed, we should try to deepen our understanding. Many of us who enjoy the sight of a shower of shooting stars on a clear spring night and the brilliance of a comet against a summer's day. Indeed, astronomy brings many youngsters into science. However, within the beauty of the universe there lurk unseen dangers. The dangers that we see, we should take seriously.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, dangers exist and threats come from things that are prosaically known as near-Earth objects. Part of my job as a Minister is to steer a course between the panic of the immediate moment and deep complacency. Somewhere between those two parameters, we should take the matter seriously. I wish to make it clear that the chances of the Earth being hit by any large near-Earth object during our lifetime is remote, but that is not an excuse and such events have happened in the past. Over geological time, it is probable, if not statistically certain, that similar events will occur again.

The hon. Gentleman outlined the two principal types of near-Earth objects, comets and asteroids, which are some of the ancient remains of the earliest years of the formation of our solar system, more than 4 billion years ago. Asteroids pass very close to the Earth's orbit around the sun and there is evidence that some have hit the Earth in the past. Most of them, the smaller space debris called meteors, are too small to survive the rapid passage through the atmosphere and burn up with the trail of light that we know as shooting stars. However, larger asteroids have occasionally crashed to Earth, creating craters and the hon. Gentleman mentioned some of them. It is clear that the Earth, with other planets and moons in the solar system, has been pelted, over geological time, by asteroids ever since its formation.

Scientists estimate that there are currently some 2,000 near-Earth objects of more than half a mile in diameter. On average, an object of those dimensions may be expected to hit the Earth only once in 100,000 years. Others have expressed that risk as being one chance in 25,000 that the average individual would be killed in an asteroid collision. That is not much higher than the risk of being killed in an aircraft collision, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. The reason for that is that although near-Earth objects impact rarely, they could have a large effect on our globe, its environment and people. The frequency of impacts is far lower than that of aircraft accidents.

I am grateful to NASA for some of the information that I have managed to glean. NASA states:

"Such global catastrophes are qualitatively different from other, more common, hazards that we face daily, given that these common events occur much more frequently but affect fewer people. No individual person should worry about being struck by a comet or asteroid. The daily threat to an average person from disease, car accidents, home accidents and from other natural disasters is much higher."

We recognise that, as NASA puts it,

"the Earth orbits the Sun in a sort of cosmic shooting gallery . . . it is only recently that we have come to appreciate that impacts by NEOs pose a significant hazard to life and property".

It is necessary, therefore, to ask what we should do, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) suggested.

NASA states:

"It is entirely feasible that we could divert a large asteroid or comet from its orbit using existing technologies. The potential response depends on the lead time. If we can predict the event long in advance, by at least 10 to 100 years, then conventional rockets and explosives would probably be adequate, even for bodies as large as a half-mile."

In a sense, the suggestions in the film referred to by the hon. Gentleman are not as way-out and wild-eyed as people might suggest.

I cannot respond in great detail to the hon. Gentleman's remarks on the Spaceguard project, but I understand that it involves certain groups monitoring asteroids. The Spaceguard Foundation was set up in 1996 by astronomers in a working group of the International Astronomical Union to promote and co-ordinate activities for the discovery, pursuit and orbital calculation of NEOs at an international level, to promote studies of their physical and mineralogical characteristics, and to promote a ground network, for discovery observations, and for astrometric and physical follow-up.

Spaceguard UK complements the Spaceguard Foundation but with a national emphasis. The Government's British National Space Centre held a meeting with interested parties, including Spaceguard UK, and has since been in contact--close contact, I hope--with Spaceguard. The Government are sympathetic to the aims of the project, and Government-funded work is contributing to all the aims, both nationally and through international co-operation.

The UK Schmidt telescope based at the Anglo- Australian observatory at Silent Springs mountain in Australia has been taking large-format glass-plate photographs of the night sky for 25 to 30 years. The photographs are stored in the Schmidt plate archive at the royal observatory at Edinburgh and are an ideal database for follow-up work on detected asteroids that can improve orbit calculations. There is a continuing programme to digitise the photographs and to make the data easily available on the internet to astronomers worldwide.

To understand better the trajectory and possible threat of asteroids, research is needed into asteroids themselves. The key matters to be understood are the materials, their shape and their structure. Data may be obtained by looking at the distribution and variation of infra-red spectra.

The UK infra-red telescope on Hawaii has been extensively used to study asteroids. Additional studies will continue with the new 8 m Gemini telescopes. The UK is contributing to that £110 million project, and twin instruments are located in Hawaii and Chile. They are at the cutting edge of technology, and they will allow British astronomers to be at the forefront of most areas of ground-based astronomy, including asteroid studies.

We are also funding our share of the mission and instruments for the European Space Agency's important Rosetta mission, the third cornerstone mission in the Horizon 2000 programme. Those instruments will study the detailed composition of the comet Wirtanen by landing on it and taking samples.

The European Space Agency is mounting a study to produce a system for the co-ordination of worldwide capacity in NEO research, and it plans to run a pilot project to demonstrate the operation of a system to co-ordinate observations and communicate results.

The British National Space Centre is participating in work aimed at keeping near-Earth space as free as possible of man-made space debris and at tracking debris once it is identified. That information provides input to collision calculations that enables orbit changes to protect systems such as ERS-1 and ERS-2. Key groups involved include those at Queen's university, Belfast, and Queen Mary's college, London.

The British National Space Centre is working with fellow members of the interagency debris co-ordination group to agree a procedure for the re-entry of risk objects. The group includes NASA, the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency, and it is collaborating on measurements of the debris environment and improvements in the prediction of re-entry events.

To consolidate the work of the International Astronomical Union, the European Space Agency, NASA and many others, an international workshop on monitoring programmes for asteroids and comets is planned this June in Italy. It is proposed that after that event, there will be a second United Nations meeting on the subject to build on the work and take it forward seriously at the highest international level.

I am grateful, as I hope are other hon. Members, to the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject. I hope that the debate will be more widely read than by those who have been able to attend. The hon. Gentleman presented a piece of science rather brilliantly. I strongly agree that the issue has to be approached with the best international collaboration. I note carefully his proposal for a centre based at Armagh. My colleagues and I stand ready to discuss the matter further with him. Our understanding of this subject is developing. The Government welcome such positive input. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that the matter can be treated seriously. He dealt with the topic with the wit and flair that communicates the problem beyond a narrow band of interest. He has done something for the popular communication of science, for which I thank him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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See also:

Presentation to the Parliamentary Astronomy and Space Environment Group

NEO Impact Hazard

Taurid fireball over Andalucia

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