The British government may take a bigger part in international efforts to identify objects in space that threaten the Earth. Such a move has been urged by an independent panel known as the Near Earth Objects Taskforce set up by the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, whose report was published in London this week.
Other recommendations include building a three-metre telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, and dedicating the one-metre Johannes Kapteyn Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands to following up observations of near-Earth objects (NEOs).
Sainsbury said that although the possibility of a dangerous NEO hitting the Earth was “extremely remote”, it had potentially serious consequences. “We put a lot of money into astronomy, and I think it is sensible to put a bit into making certain that we know if there is any danger of an object hitting our very fragile planet.”
He added that he plans to consult with ministerial colleagues and international bodies about how the government should respond to the committee's proposals.
The taskforce argues that international missions could detect NEOs while making other observations. It says the government should ask the European Space Agency to ensure that one of its future missions also surveys the sky for such objects.
The taskforce also says that the Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, should be put on a “robust international footing”.