National and International Coordination and Collaboration
Responding effectively to hazards posed by near-Earth objects (NEOs) requires the joint efforts of diverse institutions and individuals. Thus organization plays a key role that is just as important as the technical options. Because NEOs are a global threat, efforts to deal with them may involve international cooperation from the outset. This chapter discusses possible means to organize responses to those hazards at both the national and the international level. Arrangements at present are largely ad hoc and informal in the United States and abroad, and they involve both government and private entities. However, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been directed by Congress to “recommend a federal agency or agencies to be responsible for protecting the United States from a near-Earth object … expected to collide with Earth” (NASA Authorization Act of 2008, P.L. 110-422). The OSTP is directed to produce such a recommendation by October 2010.
At the national level in the United States, the Minor Planet Center (MPC) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, sponsored by the International Astronomical Union but funded about 90 percent by NASA, collects observations of all asteroids and comets made around the world. The MPC archives these observations, makes them publicly available, and computes orbits for all individual, identified objects. For any object that seems to pose a threat to Earth, the MPC director or designee has a reporting system to alert a NASA official and thence through specified government channels to alert the country at large. Also in the United States, individual observers and observatories are dedicated in whole or in part to discovering and observing NEOs. Further, NASA supports a group of researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that carries out accurate, long-term predictions of asteroid orbits, quantifies threats, and notifies NASA, as does the MPC, if a “threshold” is exceeded.
The National Response Framework of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seeks to coordinate the identification of threats and disaster response with communication and recovery challenges similar to that needed for NEO threats. However, at present, NEOs are not included in the framework.
At the international level, there is one organization, the Near-Earth Object Dynamic Site (NEODyS) system in Pisa, Italy (with a mirror site in Spain), that monitors and publicizes all potentially hazardous objects. The explosion of the 2008 TC3 asteroid in an airburst over Sudan demonstrated that even in the absence of formal international organization, effective international communications may occur, despite limited advance warning. Formal integration of these elements, with agreed-to plans, roles, and responsibilities is needed well in advance of the identification of any specific threat.
An effective, comprehensive approach to the NEO hazard will require significant planning, coordination, and cooperation within the U.S. government.
It seems sensible to assign responsibility for this NEO hazards program to an existing governmental administrative structure, especially in view of the likely relatively small size of the undertaking. It also seems more efficient to place the program under the control of a single entity in coordination with other relevant government organizations. The coordination could be implemented by way of a standing committee or an interagency task force of the appropriate agencies to organize and lead the effort to plan and coordinate any action to be taken by the United States individually, or in concert with other nations. This committee or task force would have membership from each of the relevant national agencies (NASA and the National Science Foundation [NSF]) and executive departments (Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, and State), with the chair from the lead entity. (Other relevant agencies and departments might include the Departments of Transportation and of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Services Administration, and the Department of Agriculture.)
The first step of the standing committee or interagency task force would be to define the necessary roles and responsibilities of each member agency in addressing the various aspects of the threat, from surveying the sky through civil defense. The lead responsibility for a given task would be assigned to the appropriate agency or department.
In view of the intrinsic international nature of the program, a civilian rather than a military agency would have advantages for housing it. Otherwise, one could envision continual internal conflict over military security and classification issues. Of course, any group will have such issues from time to time, but a civilian group could have far fewer such conflicts and also would likely be more acceptable to its counterparts in other nations. In an emergency, the military could be enlisted or appointed by the president to help; the military would maintain currency with the issues through membership in the standing committee or interagency task force.
Among the civilian agencies and departments, NASA has the broadest and deepest familiarity with solar system objects and its associated rendezvous missions. The NSF supports ground-based solar system research, but it traditionally responds to proposals rather than initiating and organizing complex programs (the International Geophysical Year being one of the exceptions). The Departments of Defense and of Energy, however, have by far the most important experience with nuclear explosives, necessary for some active-defense missions for changing NEO orbits. For such missions and their preparations, these departments, or at least the latter, would certainly become involved, with coordination being maintained through the standing committee or task force described above.
NASA is a possible choice for the lead agency. Within NASA, under its present organization, a natural home for this hazards program would be the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), which deals with solar system science. The current, small hazards program—with an approximately $4 million annual budget—is already housed in this directorate. But the hazards program discussed here would be more effective with its own director and budgetary line item(s) to ensure its viability within the much larger SMD. It would, of course, derive benefits from and provide benefits to the science and other programs in the SMD.
Organization is also key when mitigation requires civil defense, primarily evacuation. Experience has driven home a lesson: Without prior training for it, evacuation has chaotic and often disastrous attributes. However, training from prior emergencies can yield very successful, almost trouble-free evacuation outcomes, at least in local areas. The “poster child” for such success is the evacuation of San Bernardino County, California, in the face of ferocious fires that attacked the region in the summer of 2007.
The National Response Framework in the DHS is the part of the national government that deals with civil defense. Responsibility for planning for emergencies is centered within it. The framework is especially concerned with the coordination of the numerous local, state, regional, national, and nongovernmental organizations that are or should be involved in disaster anticipation, management, and relief of all kinds. NEOs could be added to and considered explicitly in this framework and would thus become a part of the planning and implementation of the disaster response of the United States. Any needed legislation to achieve this goal could be linked to any national and international policies and structures dealing with disaster prevention and management. The underwriting and insurance industry might be interested in providing actuarial input relevant to these matters.
Since the details of the asteroid and comet threat are unknown, a planning philosophy will be most effective if it is based on the need to be flexible and generic. This is necessary because of the wide variety of potential hazards, from airbursts through land impacts to tsunamis, with each covering a broad span of possible severities.
The chief unknown with respect to NEO hazards planning will be the size of the need, but if huge, the peril will probably be defined well in advance. In addition to planning a flexible response, a trained cadre of professionals must obtain and set up the equipment and supplies needed to sustain a displaced population. Such preparatory issues are not confined to the asteroid and comet hazard, but have common elements with all other natural hazards, such as earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes. All of the common elements may be treated similarly and by the same personnel.
It makes sense, in any national activity in this civil-defense sphere, to coordinate and collaborate with other nations in the planning and, depending on circumstances, in the implementing of responses to an impending impact event.
The probability of a devastating NEO impact in the United States is small compared to the likelihood of an impact in other nations, most with far fewer resources to detect, track, and defend against an incoming NEO. The NEO hazard, however, is such that a single country, acting unilaterally, could potentially solve the problem. Although the United States has a responsibility to identify and defend against threats with global consequences, this nation does not have to bear the full burden for such programs. There have been several international efforts to characterize objects in the near-Earth environment, but these studies have generally been driven by scientific curiosity and were not designed to address the risk of NEOs. As NEO survey requirements evolve to fainter objects and as mitigation strategies are refined, additional resources will be necessary, and these could be provided by other developed countries. International partnerships can be sought with other science organizations, notably but not exclusively space agencies, in the areas of surveys, characterization, and mitigation technologies. NEO discovery rates and survey completeness could be significantly enhanced through the coordinated use of telescopes owned and operated by other nations. Future NEO space missions, carried out by the United States, by other nations, or through the cooperation of various countries, could be optimized for characterization that enables the development and refinement of mitigation strategies. Space missions to test such strategies could also be developed on a cooperative basis with other nations, making use of the resulting complementary capability. While a coordinated intergovernmental program would be needed to address the full spectrum of activities associated with NEO surveys, characterization, and mitigation, an important first step in this direction would be to establish an international partnership, perhaps of space agencies, to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with NEO hazards.
Many scientists, especially among the world’s planetary scientists, have been concerned for well over a decade with the danger posed to Earth from the impact of an asteroid or a comet. Officials from various nations have echoed these concerns. Thus a substantial and important component of the existing international cooperation is the informal contact among professional scientists and engineers, mainly of space-faring nations, but also including some other countries.
International conferences and small meetings, as well as the Internet, have allowed experts in different aspects of space science and technology, including asteroid detection and mitigation, to know their counterparts in other nations personally. Such connections often lead to offers of or requests for aid in the solution of common problems arising in the course of these experts’ work. Veterans of the U.S. or Russian space programs often participate either openly or behind the scenes in the European Space Agency and the Japanese Space Agency and in Indian and Chinese space activities. Nuclear-weapons designers in both Russia and the United States have often met to discuss the use of nuclear explosives to effect asteroid orbit changes.
In the event of a sudden emergency due to the discovery of a threatening NEO, it is likely that people forming this international network would be the first to communicate with one another and to consider responses to the threat. For instance, when an observatory in Arizona discovered NEO 2008 TC3 only 19 hours before its impact in Sudan, the informal network of amateur and professional astronomers in many countries responded in time for thousands of observations of the object to be made and communicated to the MPC, thus allowing an extremely accurate prediction of the time (<1 minute error) and location (<1 kilometer error) of impact.
A formal integration of these elements, with agreed-to plans, roles, and responsibilities, is needed well in advance 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 of the relevant agencies and departments, to develop a detailed plan for treating all aspects of the threat posed to Earth by near-Earth objects, and apportioning among these agencies and departments the authority and responsibility for carrying out this plan, in coordination and collaboration with other nations. The standing committee would be further charged with overseeing on a continuing basis the carrying out of each agency’s and department’s activities under this plan. The administration should designate one agency or department as the lead; the chair of the committee should be the representative from this agency or department.
Recommendation: The United States should take the lead in organizing and empowering a suitable international entity to participate in developing a detailed plan for dealing with the NEO hazard.
The lead U.S. representative to this group could be the chair of the standing committee, or the chair’s designee.
EDUCATION AND PUBLIC OUTREACH
Although popular movies raise general public awareness of the threat from NEOs, they do little to educate the public regarding the true risk to humanity and may result in significant misconceptions due to the highly distorted science presented. Most impacts occur in remote locations or over oceans and often go undetected or unreported, so that few people are aware of the true hazard associated with NEOs. Although the likelihood of a devastating impact in this century is very small, smaller objects may still do significant damage and may only be detected near impact. Thus mitigation efforts may be limited to civil-defense warning and the evacuation of threatened areas. As has been clearly demonstrated during evacuations for recent hurricanes and forest fires, civil-defense authorities must have clear, well-designed plans for response. Also, the public needs to understand the threat and respond appropriately should evacuations be required. The necessary education of authorities and the general population is challenging, as impacts can happen anywhere and hazardous events happen so rarely that people may not take the threat seriously. In order to increase public awareness of NEOs and their potential hazard, material needs to be introduced into the curricula for middle and high school students, using examples of impacts on Earth and their effects, as well as the record of impacts that can readily be seen on the Moon. Education and outreach activities about NEOs need to be coordinated to enhance community awareness through public events, displays, and activities at schools, planetariums, museums, libraries, and observatories. In addition, a publicly accessible, up-to-date Web site featuring the latest observations, historical events, and a nationwide activity calendar would do much to reach into the broader community. Such activities could be coordinated nationally through a center chosen in a competitive manner. Filmmakers could also be encouraged to produce engaging but scientifically accurate films on these general subjects; truth is usually stranger than fiction and can serve as a reliable anchor.
Schweickart, R.L., T.D. Jones, F. von der Dunk, S. Camacho-Lara, and Association of Space Explorers International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation. 2008. Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response. Association of Space Explorers, Houston, Tex.