UK Task Force on Near Earth Objects Lord Sainsbury, the Minister with responsibility for space,
today published the report of the Near Earth Objects Task
Force set up in January this year, to look at the potential
risk posed by collision of the Earth with Near Earth

In publishing the report Lord Sainsbury said:

“The Task Force, under the able chairmanship of Dr Harry
Atkinson, has done an excellent job in getting to grips
with this complex issue, and in putting together views on
how we should proceed.

I welcome the Task Force’s approach, which includes
proposals for collaboration with international partners.
Over the next couple of months I will be considering the
Government’s response to the Task Force’s recommendations
in consultation with colleagues”.

Notes to Editors:

  1. In January 2000 the Minister for Science, Lord
    Sainsbury, announced the setting up of a Task Force on
    Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects (NEOs). He invited
    the Task Force to make proposals to the Government on how
    the United Kingdom should best contribute to international
    effort on Near-Earth Objects; and specifically to:

    a. confirm the nature of the hazard and the potential level
    of risks;

    b. dentify the current UK contribution to international

    c. advise HMG on what further action to take in the light
    of a. and b. above and on the communication of issues to
    the public.

  2. The Task Force was chaired by Dr Harry Atkinson,
    formerly of the Science and Engineering Research Council
    (SERC) and past Chairman of the European Space Agency’s
    Council. Sir Crispin Tickell, British diplomat, and
    Professor David Williams, immediate past President of
    the Royal Astronomical Society, completed the team.

  3. Near Earth Objects are asteroids and comets whose orbits
    bring them close to the Earth.

  4. The Task Force met on a number of occasions and
    presented its report to the Director General of BNSC on
    16 August 2000. The British National Space Centre (BNSC)
    provided the secretariat for the Task Force.

  5. The Task Force has made 14 recommendations. They cover
    the British role in a greater international effort,
    improvement of our ability to detect any incoming
    objects, an assessment of risks, measures to mitigate
    any future impacts, and new national and international
    arrangements to cope with the many issues that are
    raised. The report is also a comprehensive review of
    current knowledge

  6. A copy of the report and further information on NEOs can
    be found on

Press Enquiries: 020-7215 2345

(Out of Hours : 020-7215 5110/5600)

Public Enquiries: 020-7215 5000

Textphone (for people with hearing impairments): 020-7215 6740

Executive Summary

Enormous numbers of asteroids and comets
orbit the Sun. Only a tiny fraction of
them follow paths that bring them near
the Earth. These Near Earth Objects
range in size from pebbles to mountains, and travel at
high speeds.

Such objects have collided with the Earth since its
formation, and brought the carbon and water which
made life possible. They have also caused widespread
changes in the Earth’s surface, and occasional
extinctions of such living organisms as the dinosaurs.
The threat has only recently been recognised and
accepted. This has come about through advances in
telescope technology allowing the study of these
usually faint objects, the identification of craters on
the moon, other planets and the Earth as a result of
impacts, and the dramatic collision of pieces of the
comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1994.

Impacts represent a significant risk to human and
other forms of life. Means now exist to mitigate the
consequences of such impacts for the human species.

The largest uncertainty in risk analysis arises from
our incomplete knowledge of asteroids whose orbits
bring them near to the Earth. With greater
information about them, fairly accurate predictions
can be made. The risk from comets is between 10
and 30 per cent of that from asteroids. The advance
warning period for a potential impact from a long
period comet may be as short as a year compared to
decades or centuries for asteroids. Short period
comets can be considered along with asteroids.

The threat from Near Earth Objects raises major
issues, among them the inadequacy of current
knowledge, confirmation of hazard after initial
observation, disaster management (if the worst
came to the worst), methods of mitigation
including deflection, and reliable communication
with the public. The Task Force believes that steps
should be taken at government level to set in place
appropriate bodies – international, European
including national – where these issues can be
discussed and decisions taken. The United
Kingdom is well placed to make a significant
contribution to what should be a global effort.


Recommendation 1:

We recommend that the Government should seek
partners, preferably in Europe, to build in the
southern hemisphere an advanced new 3 metre-class
survey telescope for surveying substantially smaller
objects than those now systematically observed by
other telescopes. The telescope should be dedicated to
work on Near Earth Objects and be located on an
appropriate site.

Recommendation 2:

We recommend that arrangements be made for
observational data obtained for other purposes by
wide-field facilities, such as the new British VISTA
telescope, to be searched for Near Earth Objects on a
nightly basis.

Recommendation 3:

We recommend that the Government draw the
attention of the European Space Agency to the
particular role that GAIA, one of its future missions,
could play in surveying the sky for Near Earth
Objects. The potential in GAIA, and in other space
missions such as NASA’s SIRTF and the European
Space Agency’s BepiColombo, for Near Earth Object
research should be considered as a factor in defining a potential threat were found.

Recommendation 4:

We recommend that the 1 metre Johannes Kapteyn
Telescope on La Palma, in which the United Kingdom
is a partner, be dedicated to follow-up observations
of Near Earth Objects.

Recommendation 5:

We recommend that negotiations take place with the
partners with whom the United Kingdom shares
suitable telescopes to establish an arrangement for
small amounts of time to be provided under
appropriate financial terms for spectroscopic follow-up
of Near Earth Objects.

Recommendation 6:

We recommend that the Government explore, with
like-minded countries, the case for mounting a
number of coordinated space rendezvous missions
based on relatively inexpensive microsatellites, each to
visit a different type of Near Earth Object to establish
its detailed characteristics.

Recommendation 7:

We recommend that the Government – together with
other governments, the International Astronomical
Union and other interested parties – seek ways of
putting the governance and funding of the Minor
Planet Center on a robust international footing.
including the Center’s links to executive agencies if a potential threat were found.

Recommendation 8:

We recommend that the Government should help
promote multi-disciplinary studies of the
consequences of impacts from Near Earth Objects on
the Earth in British and European institutions
concerned, including the Research Councils,
universities and the European Science Foundation.

Recommendation 9:

We recommend that the Government, with other
governments, set in hand studies to look into the
practical possibilities of mitigating the results of
impact and deflecting incoming objects.

Recommendation 10:

We recommend that the Government urgently seek
with other governments and international bodies (in
particular the International Astronomical Union) to
establish a forum for open discussion of the scientific
aspects of Near Earth Objects, and a forum for
international action. Preferably these should be
brought together in an international body. It might
have some analogy with the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change, thereby covering science,
impacts, and mitigation.

Recommendation 11:

We recommend that the Government discuss with
like-minded European governments how Europe could
best contribute to international efforts to cope with
Near Earth Objects, coordinate activities in Europe,
and work towards becoming a partner with the
United States, with complementary roles in specific
areas. We recommend that the European Space
Agency and the European Southern Observatory, with
the European Union and the European Science
Foundation, work out a strategy for this purpose in
time for discussion at the ministerial meeting of the
European Space Agency in 2001.

Recommendation 12:

We recommend that the Government appoint a single
department to take the lead for coordination and
conduct of policy on Near Earth Objects, supported
by the necessary inter-departmental machinery.

Recommendation 13:

We recommend that a British Centre for Near Earth
Objects be set up whose mission would be to promote
and coordinate work on the subject in Britain; to
provide an advisory service to the Government, other
relevant authorities, the public and the media, and to
facilitate British involvement in international
activities. In doing so it would call on the Research
Councils involved, in particular the Particle Physics
and Astronomy Research Council and the Natural
Environment Research Council, and on universities,
observatories and other bodies concerned in Britain.

Recommendation 14:

We recommend that one of the most important
functions of a British Centre for Near Earth Objects be
to provide, a public service which would give
balanced information in clear, direct and
comprehensible language as need might arise. Such a
service must respond to very different audiences: on
the one hand Parliament, the general public and the
media; and on the other the academic, scientific and
environmental communities. In all of this, full use
should be made of the Internet. As a first step, the
Task Force recommends that a feasibility study be
established to determine the functions, terms of
reference and funding for such a Centre.