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Sci-Tech

Meteorite explosion puts space on UN agenda

The UN released proposals for a response to the threat of objects from space impacting the Earth. DW looks at the implications of last week's meteorite explosion and what the UN could do for the space industry.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) released its recommendations for an international response to the threat of objects from space this week - five days after a large asteroid narrowly missed the Earth and a meteorite explosion caused significant damage in Chelyabinsk, Russia. The explosion of the 17-meter-long object was 30 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, according to calculations by Peter Brown from Canada's University of Western Ontario.

Apart from identifying existing gaps in the work of identifying near-Earth objects (NEOs) that may pose a threat to the planet, the UNOOSA wants to form an International Asteroid Warning Network as well as a Space Missions Planning Advisory Group

The trace of a flying object in the sky over Chelyabinsk (still from a dashboard camera). -/RIA Novosti 
Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

The meteorite that hit Chelyabinsk was unexpected - scientists did not have it on their radar

More UN involvement?

It is still too early to say whether the event in Chelyabinsk will increase international collaboration and lead to the formation of an organization to coordinate national space agencies. A meeting between space agencies and experts at the Planetary Defense Conference in April will discuss the UN's proposals and make its own recommendations, according to Nicolas Bobrinsky, head of the European Space Agency's Space Situation Awareness (SSA) program.

"It would be extremely useful to have a forum where space agencies can meet under the forum and protection of the UN," he told DW.

Alan Harris from the German Space Agency's (DLR) also said the UN could help. "An international agreement, which recognizes the problem and supports the establishment of an organization [...] which could coordinate government efforts is needed," he said.

Asteroid mitigation

Both the ESA and the German Space Agency are doing extensive research on near-Earth objects, but they have different focuses. The ESA concentrates on asteroid detection and discovery, while the DLR coordinates a multi-national NEO Shield project that aims to find ways of deflecting asteroids that are on a collision course with Earth.

The DLR, along with its counterparts in the United States and Russia, believes the course of an asteroid can be changed by launching a space probe with a substantial mass into the space body. The probe could alter the asteroid's velocity and thereby change its course, Harris said.

"However, a major issue requiring further research is how the degree of deflection depends on the surface characteristics and structure of the asteroid," he added.

An asteroid that hit the Earth more than 65 million years ago is responsible for the end of the dinasaur era(Coyright: dpa)

An asteroid ended the dinasaur era 65 million years ago

Expensive undertaking

It will cost more than 100 million euros ($131 million) to pay for a spacecraft that can change the course of an asteroid. Harris, as well as other space experts, said he hopes increased awareness of the danger meteorites could pose to the Earth after last week's explosion in Russia will improve the chances of raising the funds needed for the mission.

Should the program get off the ground, asteroids least 50 meters across will likely be deflected using a space probe. Anything smaller, like the asteroid in Chelyabinsk, will lead to evacuation of the projected point of impact. More than 1,000 people were injured when the meteorite exploded last Friday (15.02.2013).

Harris said scientists will carry out cost-benefit analyses to determine whether sending a probe makes sense. The meteorite in Chelyabinsk caused 25 million euros worth of damage, which would not have justified a mission worth more than 100 million euros, Harris said.

Trees lay strewn across the Siberian countryside 45 years after a meteorite struck the Earth near Tunguska, Russia in 1953. The 1908 explosion leveled everything for miles near the impact site. (AP Photo)

In 1908, an asteroid in Siberia, knocked down some 80 million trees

Many unanswered questions

There's a good chance programs to detect and deal with asteroids will receive additional funding.

"The meteorite explosion has raised the awareness of the [dangerousness] of the phenomena among the population and the politicians," the ESA's Bobrinsky said, noting that they would get a sense of any changes when European ministers meet next year to discuss the agency's 2014 budget.

Ministers will also have to confront a number of other questions, including a legal framework for how and when objects like asteroids and meteorites are addressed, who would pay for the evacuation efforts if a faulty projection is made, what would happens if an impact occurs despite having its course changed, and if a NEO is headed for a particular country, should other countries participate in that mission.

Harris from the German Space Agency said "increased awareness by the public should help to bring pressure on politicians."

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