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This Week’s Asteroid Toutatis Passing Earth Spotlights Question of Planetary Defense; UN Conference Set For February 2013

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The existential danger to the human race posed by asteroids is in the headlines this weekend, in particular, after the asteroid Toutatis passed the Earth Dec. 13. The United Nations is sponsoring a major conference on the issue February 2013, billed as intended to devise a framework for advance detection of asteroids, and confer on potential plans for action against collisions.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph today reports on the conference, and gives attention to the asteroid Apophis, measuring an enormous 300m across, which is expected to make a very close pass to Earth in 2029. First detected in 2004, it will come within 22,000 miles (36,000 km) of Earth when it passes by—nearer to Earth than man-made satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Prof. Richard Crowther, chief engineer at the U.K. Space Agency, told the daily: "The theory is that if you can see it soon enough, you can deal with it. What we want to avoid is dealing with something that is only a couple of years away from impact—not only for technical reasons but also on the policy front. Moving an asteroid’s point of impact away from Britain, for example, could potentially move it towards America or Europe like a red laser moving across a map, and as that happens obviously people are going to want to have some say about where it passes." Crowther explains different measures that might be taken, saying, "We need to understand what these objects are made of, and how we might interact with them in the future."