Number 19: 23/03/2003
A scientific publication by SGF and NEODyS

The OECD meeting and the future of the European NEO research

by Andrea Carusi, President, The Spaceguard Foundation

On January 20-22 the Organization for the Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has organized the "Workshop on Near-Earth Objects: Risks, Policies and Actions". The Workshop has been held at ESRIN, the ESA facility located in Frascati (Italy). This initiative has been taken by the OECD Global Science Forum (GSF), a branch of OECD dealing with scientific topics of a global nature, based on a proposal of the delegation of United Kingdom as a follow on of the UK NEO Task Force Report.

The Workshop was not intended as a scientific meeting. Rather, its main purpose was to bring together people with very different backgrounds, such as representatives of the Civil Defense and Space Agencies, policy makers, opinion makers, and scientists, and let them interact for a few days on this topic that is receiving increasing attention in the scientific community, but that is still not considered as a real issue by most of the governments. The goal, as declared in the title of the Workshop, was to examine what is the level of risk that NEO impacts may represent for the human population as compared to other, more common natural hazards, and to discuss what type of actions the governmental organization should take to cope with it.

The conclusions of the Workshop are in the form of recommendations that will be presented to the OECD GSF plenary session next June. The document has been finalized and therefore is reported here (click here to read the pdf document in the OECD website or click here to go to the OECD home page). A few comments on its "spirit" can be made. A first important point is that the NEO threat is recognized as real, although of very low frequency. The consequence of this finding is that actions should be taken to try to better understand the nature of the problem, depending on the local characteristics of individual countries. As an example, some countries could be more sensitive than others to tsunamis of even moderate intensity, such as the ones that can be caused by the impact in the oceans of objects of 200-300 metres in size.

A second point that has been raised is that the scientific investigations on all phenomena related to impacts should receive more attention and, in the end, more funds. The link between scientific research and civil defense initiatives has been stressed, because the science findings are essential to characterize the risk and to indicate the most effective ways of planning mitigation measures.

A third point concerns international collaboration. It is clear that impacts are a potential hazard that involves, by its very nature, many countries; actions should therefore be taken to improve the international collaboration both in finding the objects and in analyzing possible countermeasures. As an example, it has been remarked that an observing facility located in the Southern Hemisphere would be of great value, not because discovery of at least some of the dangerous objects would otherwise be impossible, but because a Southern search programme would allow to shorten the time needed to complete the inventory.

This last remark has been already fruitful. Recently, several scientists working on NEOs have completed a Pilot Program at the ESO facility in La Silla (Chile). The purpose of this program was to test the performances of ESO instrumentation and the possibility to use it for a large European project. The program made use of the 2.2m Wide Field Imager as a discovery instrument, and of the New Technology Telescope for follow-up. The results have been very encouraging: in a run of two night at the 2.2m and one night at the NTT, two new NEOs have been discovered. The most relevant result has been that this run has shown that the ESO instruments may represent a very valuable addition to the current efforts, because they can go very deep (about the 22nd magnitude) while scanning a large portion of the sky.
The use of a very powerful instrument for follow-up, such as the NTT, would further increase the efficiency of the system.

Based on these results, a meeting has been held in Rome on March 3-4, in order to discuss the possibility of setting up a large European programme involving ESO. The prospects are rather good because ESO has clearly stated its interest. The programme could include using the 2.2m for an extended time (about 10 nights per month) and the other instruments (NTT, VLT, VST) for follow-up, both astrometric and physical. The programme would involve all European countries interested in NEO research, and should be supported not only by ESO, but also from the individual governments and by the European Commission.

We are still at a very preliminary stage of definition of a full proposal.
However, the most interesting aspects of this project are that it would be located in the south and would extend the discovery activity down to objects in the 200-500 metres range, thus acknowledging the invitations already made by several international institutions, like the Council of Europe, the United Nations, and now the OECD.