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Doomsday Postponed

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The end of the world may be postponed, thanks to an international meeting that took place in January.

The Space Mission Planning and Advisory Group (SMPAG) met in a forum hosted by the European Space Agency to determine how best to protect our planet from a catastrophic asteroid strike. Its specific mission is to coordinate expertise and capabilities for missions aimed at countering asteroids that might one day strike Earth.

SMPAG was formed by the United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to develop a strategy on how to react to a future extraterrestrial collision. It will coordinate with space agencies across the world to develop a strategy in response to a collision between Earth and an impact with an extraterrestrial object.

The U.N. has been discussing the issue for approximately 14 years, beginning in 1995 when it’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) met in New York to bring the issue to the attention of member states. In 2001, “Action Team 14” was established to improve international coordination of activities related to near-Earth objects.

It was a vast space-borne rock, you may have read, that plummeted into the Yucatan and wiped out the dinosaurs many millennia ago. There is no doubt that Earth will be the target of another such hit some time in the future—and that future can be anywhere from a few years to a few centuries from now.

Even much smaller asteroids could have a devastating impact, wiping out an entire city in a single blow. The danger is real, and affects every nation on the globe.

NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Program has spearheaded this area of space research, working to detect, track and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that could approach the Earth. With over 90% of the near-Earth objects larger than one kilometer already discovered, the NEO Program is now focusing on finding 90% of the NEO population larger than 140 meters. In addition to managing the detection and cataloging of Near-Earth objects, the NEO Program office is responsible for facilitating communications between the astronomical community and the public should any potentially hazardous objects be discovered. As of February 02, 2014, 10,685 Near-Earth objects have been discovered. Some 868 of these NEOs are asteroids with a diameter of approximately 1 kilometer or larger. 1454 of these NEOs have been classified as potentially hazardous.

Now, for the first time, national space agencies from North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa will establish an expert group aimed at getting the world’s space-faring nations on the ‘same page’ when it comes to reacting to asteroid threats, working together to find and track dangerous asteroids, deciding what to do with them, and implementing a mission to protect the planet.

The latest evidence that asteroids pose a major threat occurred a year ago this week, when a previously unknown asteroid exploded high above Chelyabinsk, Russia, with 20–30 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. There was a brief period when the meteor appeared to glow brighter than the Sun. The shock wave produced by the asteroid as it hit the atmosphere caused numerous injuries and shattered windows.

If an impending strike by an asteroid is detected, an International Asteroid Warning Network would coordinate with space faring nations to prepare a response, including possible means of deflecting the threatening object away from the planet.

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