“Spaceguard” is an international effort to search the skies for large
asteroids that might collide with Earth and devastate civilisation. The
present Australian government has consistently tried to ignore the hazard
posed by asteroid impacts and the need for Spaceguard, in
contradiction to the scientific evidence published in international
journals, and against all
assessments carried out by such organisations as the US government, the UK
government, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the International
Astronomical Union.

Now a space policy document issued by the government in June this year calls
into question the Australian government’s stand on Spaceguard. The document
“Maximum Probable Loss Methodology” sets out guidelines for assessing the
losses from rocket launch failures and was issued by the
Space Licensing and Safety Office of the Department of Industry, Science and
Resources. These guidelines value “casualties”, that is death or serious
injury, at $5 million each and
note that probabilities of death or injury greater than one in 10 million
are “unacceptable”.

The risk, in any one year, of an asteroid impact at a level causing global
devastation (upwards of one-quarter of all humanity being killed) is
estimated to be between about one in 100,000 and one in 500,000. Over five
million Australians would die, perhaps a greater proportion than in most
other nations because we mostly live on the coasts, and so are especially
vulnerable to the mega-tsunamis associated with large asteroid impacts.
Using the extremely conservative values of five million deaths and a
one-in-500,000 annual chance then the Government’s $5 million valuation of
each life gives an annual expectation of loss of about $50 million. This
figure does not include the costs of injuries or property damage, let alone
the consequences of global economic collapse. Also it does not account for
the effects of smaller impacts that cause regional devastation.

By the government’s own guidelines the lack of action on Spaceguard is

As astronomer Duncan Steel has pointed out, this makes the Spaceguard
program an absolute bargain insurance policy for civilisation.

[UK to set up an asteroid research centre]

On 17 August this year the British government announced that it was setting
up a centre to study the asteroid threat and provide information to the
public. The centre was proposed last year by a task force of top British
scientists who were asked to investigate Britain’s involvement in

Australia has had a Spaceguard information centre for nearly five years. It
is a website operated by the Planetary Society Australian Volunteers and
covers a wide range of topics from the cost of running a major search
program (about $600,000 per year) to the death toll from tsunami generated
by ocean impacts. In their report, the British task force describe the
Australian website as “a particularly useful resource”. Plans for the
website started in 1996 when the Australian government cancelled a highly
successful asteroid search project based at the
Anglo-Australian Observatory in New South Wales.

Society Volunteer Michael Paine, who maintains the website in Australia said
that it had been very frustrating dealing with a succession of Australian
government ministers. He said that the lack of interest from Defence
portfolio had been particularly disappointing because it clearly had a major
role to play. In the USA, scientists and engineers are enthusiastically
turning their Cold War defence projects into asteroid impact research.
Telescopes previously used for tracking
soviet satellites are now looking for killer asteroids. Super-computer
programs that simulate the effects of nuclear explosions are being used to
estimate the environmental effects of asteroid impacts with the Earth and
the feasibility of deflecting Earth-bound asteroids.


Michael Paine, Ph 02 94514870 mpaine@tpgi.com.au