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Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth-Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies
A formal integration of these elements, with agreed-to plans, roles, and responsibilities, is needed well inadvance of the identification of any specific threat. The United States is in a unique position to lead the sustained effort required to marshal the international community to ensure preparedness.
Given this international community of interested and knowledgeable scientists and (at least some) concerned governments, how should the world develop a coherent program to meet this threat, in all of its aspects? One approach is to work through the United Nations, perhaps through an enhancement of the existing Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space—a committee that has already received an extensive report from a nongovernmental agency of experts on the various aspects of NEO hazards (Schweickart et al., 2008). Another approach, mentioned above, is to organize the various national, and for Europe, international, space agencies. A third approach is to organize a new group—a standing committee—composed of representatives of nations concerned with this problem and willing to invest in preparedness for a damaging collision. A minimum for annual contributions or national expenditures on this problem could be set and monitored, say, by the standing committee. The level of contributions could be fixed so that even the minimum would allow “useful” accomplishments. This international standing committee would be open to membership by representatives of all nations that wished to contribute to addressing this problem at the minimum or a greater level. Since no nation would likely give up much, if any, of its sovereignty, even in the face of this supranational issue, the standing committee would develop a program and submit it for approval to the individual member countries. In the absence of a specific future-impact event of concern, however, it might be hard to reach agreement (it would probably be hard enough, even in the face of imminent danger).
International collaborations perforce spawn legal issues, and organizing a hazard response would be far from immune to them. Suppose, for example, that two or more nations in the consortium wish to alter the orbit of a potential impactor. In a case of seemingly irreconcilable differences, to whom could they appeal for adjudication of the dispute, and what precedent(s) would inform such adjudication? As a second example, consider nations A and B that, in collaboration, succeeded in altering the orbit of an imminent impactor, but, through circumstances beyond their control, changed the impact site from nation C to nation D (instead of causing the object to miss Earth entirely). Who decides who is responsible for the damage inflicted on nation D and to what degree? As a last example, consider nations A through E collaborating on a mission to change the orbit of an imminent impactor by using nuclear explosives. Suppose that one of the armada of spacecraft dispatched for this mission failed to gain orbit and crashed onto nation F, releasing damaging radioactive material. How are the damages to be assessed and by whom, and how are the responsibilities for payment to be determined and the judgment enforced?
The existing legal entity that appears most appropriate to handle such issues is the World Court. It could also deal with contract disputes involving bi- and multinational agreements involving these issues. The nations of the world would need to agree in advance, through some type of treaty, to give jurisdiction to the World Court and to abide by its findings and penalty assessments. Other alternatives could be investigated, such as a new judicial entity that could be created solely to deal with these hazard issues and which might better safeguard national sovereignty.
This legal component of the hazards issue suggests that the Department of State and perhaps the Department of Justice may need to play a strong role in dealing with the international aspects of the hazards issue.
One major concern with a standing committee and its affiliates, especially in the area of preparation for disasters, is the maintenance of attention and morale, given the expected exceptionally long intervals between harmful events. Countering the tendency to complacency will be a continuing challenge. This problem would be lessened were, for example, the civil-defense aspects combined with those for other natural hazards.
Recommendation: The United States should establish a standing committee, with membership from each ofthe relevant agencies and departments, to develop a detailed plan for treating all aspects of the threat posedto Earth by near-Earth objects, and apportioning among these agencies and departments the authority andresponsibility for carrying out this plan, in coordination and collaboration with other nations. The standingcommittee would be further charged with overseeing on a continuing basis the carrying out of each agency’sand department’s activities under this plan. The administration should designate one agency or departmentas the lead; the chair of the committee should be the representative from this agency or department.