Spaceguard UK – A Saga (part I)

by Jay Tate - Copyright Tumbling Stone 2002

On 18th September 2000 two extraordinary things happened. Firstly the British minister for science and technology, Lord Sainsbury, launched the report of the government's Near Earth Object Task Force at a press conference in London. The report verified the impact threat to the UK, and made 14 substantive recommendations for government action. Secondly, no one laughed at him.

Spaceguard UK logo

These were just two milestones in the continuing story of Spaceguard UK that began in July 1994. At that time the press was full of the impending collisions between Jupiter and Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and it wasn't a great leap of intellect to then wonder what would happen were something similar to occur on Earth, so I decided that one day I would find out what was planned for such an eventuality. I began to dig, and the more that I dug, the less I found. Using the Internet I contacted a number of the experts in the field, including Mark Bailey, Duncan Steel, Andrea Carusi, Gene Shoemaker and Tom Gehrels. Thanks to their help and advice I was able to put together a paper for submission to the Ministry of Defence, which was submitted in March 96. The response was not very encouraging.

Then in June 96 I attended the COSPAR Asteroids, Comets and Meteorites conference in Versailles. Here I met many of the key players in the field face to face, and had the opportunity to discuss the NEO threat with many of them. With their help I began to turn my original paper into a more formal proposal that I planned to send to the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister for Science and Technology. Everyone that I spoke to was incredibly helpful and supportive, but there was a general feeling that my efforts would probably come to naught - hardly surprising; a dabbling amateur is not much to go on. Also it was here as well that I first heard of the Spaceguard Foundation, and I became its first amateur member.

On 21 Jun 96 I submitted my proposal to the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister for Science and Technology. It proposed the establishment of a small coordinating centre to collate and assess the data produced by other institutions and nations. The role of this office would be to conduct a careful threat assessment, and to study the various mitigation strategies that have been suggested with a view to presenting recommendations to ministers who could then decide whether the threat is worthy of further study, and on future courses of action.

The Ministry of Defence was advised by its experts that the UK does not have the capability to mount a mitigation mission on its own, so there is no requirement for early warning of a potential impact. On the basis of this statement the MoD declined the invitation to become involved in any project to detect NEOs, or to assess the threat to the national security of the UK. Despite the inaccuracy of the advice given to the Secretary of State, the Ministry was unwilling to reconsider its decision, and stated that any further correspondence on the subject would not be welcome. This annoyed me greatly.

However, one result of the proposal was that on 8th of August a meeting hosted by the BNSC was held at the Satellite Laser Ranger Facility at Herstmonceux. Due to the informal and exploratory nature of the meeting formal minutes were not kept, but it was decided that there is a strong case to pursue the recommendation of the proposal described above, namely to establish a study to investigate the possible United Kingdom contribution to the developing international effort to evaluate the NEO threat. It was thought that the question of threat analysis had probably already been sufficiently researched, and that the study would concentrate on determining the best ways for the UK to participate in any international programme. It was thought possible that limited funds for the study might be procured by BNSC, and it was decided to hold a second meeting, at the headquarters of the BNSC, on 12th November 1996. The aim of this meeting would be to focus on the proposed study, to determine its terms of reference, composition and funding.

On 28 October a letter from Dr Tom Gehrels and seventeen other well-known US scientists urging UK participation in international studies into the NEO threat was delivered to sixteen prominent UK scientists and politicians. The on 4 November another letter, from Dr Edward Teller was delivered to the Prime Ministers of Great Britain and Australia.

The meeting at BNSC in London convened on the morning of 12 November, to considerable media interest (much to the discomfort of the BNSC!) The aim of the meeting was to bring together as many interested parties as possible to assess exactly what the United Kingdom is doing in the field of NEO studies and planetary defence, and to discuss what should be done in the future. It was well attended with representatives of many government, academic and independent organisations contributing. Dr Jasper Wall, the Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, summed up the conclusions for the record:

There was unanimous agreement that the threat exists, and is significant enough to warrant further investigation.

There is a requirement for a Working Group to assess the UK contribution to international efforts, and how this could be co-ordinated with international bodies.

Funding must be sought from national and international sources.
There is a requirement for a multi-disciplinary group to study the threat, especially those aspects of a non-astronomical nature.
There is a need to raise public understanding of the issues, and confidence that they are being addressed.

The main stumbling block throughout the proceedings was the apportionment of responsibility for the whole business. I feared that because no one was willing to take this project under their wing the whole effort could flounder.

A spin-off of the meeting was the establishment of Spaceguard UK, which was originally designed to be an information service for the public, media and the professional - nothing at all to do with political lobbying. It wasn't long before I had nearly all of the key individuals worldwide signed up.

On 10 Jul 1997 the second UK Spaceguard meeting was held in Cambridge, organised by Jasper Wall, Director, Royal Greenwich Observatory, Cambridge, and Mark Bailey. The meeting was intended to review the current understanding of the extraterrestrial impact hazard, the level of the actuarial risk in comparison with other significant hazards, and the contribution that U.K astronomers and others, in collaboration with those in Europe and elsewhere, may make towards a better understanding and assessment of the risk.

I briefed the meeting on the Spaceguard UK action Plan (see box ). It was agreed as the way forward.

1. Short Term - Preparation

Formalisation of the UK NEO Working Group
This forum needs a formalised mission statement, composition, programme of work and funding. The Working Group must be multi-disciplinary in nature, and will require the support of government at departmental level at least.
Increased public awareness
A media campaign is required to increase public awareness of the NEO threat, and measures that can be taken to mitigate it. We need to "spread the word" through a campaign of articles in journals and the media, making maximum use of opportunity news items, and the briefing of key political, military, public and commercial personnel.
Development of Spaceguard UK infrastructure and membership
Spaceguard UK needs to formalise its infrastructure, regulations and financial status. A recruiting drive is needed to broaden the base of support for the aims of the organisation. Financial arrangements are being made to cover expenses without creating intolerable administrative or legal burdens.

2. Medium Term - Planning

Ministry of Defence involvement in US Air Force Space Command initiatives
The Ministry of Defence must be encouraged to liaise with US Air Force Space Command, and to actively participate in US military Planetary Defence initiatives.
Recognition and funding from central government
Currently Planetary Defence is a subject that does not fall under the mandate of any particular government department. Responsibility needs to be allocated at departmental level. Central government should fund research into the NEO threat, as recommended and co-ordinated by the UK NEO Working Group who will also have the responsibility for co-operation and co-ordination with the international Spaceguard Foundation. A second working group, consisting of predominantly non-scientific members should be tasked with considering the political, social and psychological effects of impacts.
Liaison established with European/international partners
The British government must be encouraged to liaise with other governments, both within Europe and elsewhere, and to be active in promoting joint programmes with European or other partners for the detection and tracking of NEOs.

3. Long Term - Execution

United Kingdom participation in an active NEO detection programme
The United Kingdom should develop, build and operate a facility for the detection and tracking of NEOs, either nationally or in collaboration with other nations or institutions. The plans for and operation of the facility must be co-ordinated with other programmes worldwide as part of a global effort.
Collaborative development of mitigation strategies
The United Kingdom should collaborate with the international community on the development, and, if necessary, the deployment of mitigation measures.

The meeting concluded with a presentation by R. Tremayne-Smith on possible next steps. Disagreements are all at the level of detail, and there is now a unanimous view that something needs to be done about the NEO threat. Nothing said at this meeting constitutes an excuse for doing nothing. It is unlikely that additional PPARC funding will be available for NEO observations or the necessary equipment upgrades required. However, once the importance of the subject is more widely recognised funding could follow. He finished by pointing out that matters could change if an NEO of significant size is detected on a collision course, there is a complete ban on nuclear devices, leaving us defenceless, there was an increase in NEO study funding or if the international community agreed on a set of principles for dealing with the NEO threat.

It was at about this time that I severely upset the BNSC by quoting some numbers on the British financial contribution to the global NEO effort. Taking the ESA grant to the Spaceguard Foundation, I divided it by the number of ESA members. I then used the resulting figure as the British contribution (£ 5928.57p). I was informed, in no uncertain terms that this was inaccurate, and that I didn’t understand the way these things were done. On further prompting the BNSC admitted that such grants were made on a national basis, and that the British contribution was actually zero! I also published a slide showing the Tunguska damage template superimposed over London.

On 12 October 1997 a proposal, co-authored by Mark Bailey, Alan Fitzsimmons, Duncan Steel, Jasper Wall and me, was submitted to PPARC. We proposed the installation of a CCD mosaic on the UKST to be used primarily for Near-Earth Objects, asteroids, comets and Edgeworth-Kuiper belt searches and investigation. In addition to its primary role the facility would be suitable for many other astrophysical applications. The construction of a large CCD mosaic on the UKST would maintain a significant UK asset in the southern hemisphere and also provide a world-beating instrument for the UK planetary science community.

The proposal met with some interest, but no funding. Then on 12 Mar1998 the mistaken announcement that an asteroid called XF11 could hit the Earth in 2028 hit the press like a run-away train. The fact that the claim was retracted within 24 hours did little to calm the public fears, but still nothing happened at government level. Although the whole affair caused no end of trouble amongst astronomers, the public began to wake up to the possibility that massive collisions could happen.

In 25 Sep 1998 I lectured to the Shrewsbury Astronomical Society. In the audience was a local MP, Lembit Öpik who seemed interested in the subject. We spent far too long in the pub afterwards, and he promised to take up the matter in the House. I felt that this was unlikely to happen, but on 3 March 99 in the House of Commons Lembit rose to address the House. He began: "I have a big problem with asteroids." He then spent the next twenty minutes describing the threat posed by Near Earth Objects, and suggesting that we need to do something about it. John Battle, the science minister, stated "As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, dangers exist and threats come from things that are prosaically known as near-Earth objects. Part of my job as a Minister is to steer a course between the panic of the immediate moment and deep complacency. Somewhere between those two parameters, we should take the matter seriously. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that the matter can be treated seriously."

This was the first inkling that the government was changing its mind. Then on 10 May 99 there was a meeting of the All Party Astronomy and Space Environment Group at House of Lords. Mark Bailey gave a presentation on the NEO hazard, and the dinner afterwards gave us an opportunity to talk to a number of potential supporters. Then on 15th June in the House of Lords, Lord Tanlaw asked Her Majesty's Government: "What steps are being taken to form a national Spaceguard centre, as part of a European Spaceguard programme, to improve the assessment and probability factor of impact hazard of a near earth object on the continent of Europe or in the seas surrounding it?" In reply the Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury) stated that the government takes the potential threat of impact by near earth objects very seriously, but that they regard it as an issue where an international approach is essential. He went on to say that the Government have no plans to set up a national Spaceguard agency, but will consider the possibility when the government receives the report of the Turin meeting. Actually, reports from the Turin meeting had already been passed to the British National Space Centre, and included an urgent recommendation that "European governments should establish national Spaceguard centres to advise their governments on the assessment of the impact hazard and to act as foci for NEO research and should support these centres financially to facilitate European collaboration in the international Spaceguard programme".

Lord Tanlaw questioned the minister about asteroid 1999 AN10, which has a small collision probability, and the minister stated the hope that the "Spaceguard website" will convey any information to the public. There is no "Spaceguard website", especially in the UK. The Spaceguard UK website is unfunded and privately run, and it is incredible to think that a government would wish news of an impending asteroid impact to be issued to the public by such an organ!

On July 8th 1999 a team from Spaceguard UK visited the minister at the Department of Trade and Industry to put the case for a feasibility study into the establishment of a National Spaceguard Centre. The upshot of the meeting was that the minister agreed to establish a Task Force. This was officially announced on 4th January 2000. On 18 September of the same year, after nine months of hard work, the Task Force published their report. Not only did it validate the hazard posed by NEOs, but it also made 14 substantive recommendations for action by the British government. A full copy can be found on the BNSC NEO website at

The report was received with great enthusiasm worldwide, and was generally seen as an excellent account of the NEO hazard and steps that should be taken to reduce it. Some even saw it as the trigger for global participation in a robust and well-funded NEO research programme. However, things rarely move fast in government circles unless the subject is a hot media item at the time. We had to wait until the end of February 2001 for a response from government.

In the next article we shall look at the British government’s response to the Task Force report, and the prospects for future activity in the UK.

Jay Tate (*) - President of Spaceguard UK

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