HL Deb 15 June 1999 vol 602 cc129-32

2.50 p.m.

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.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, the Government take the potential threat of impact by near earth objects very seriously, but we regard it as an issue where a common international approach is essential. The UK therefore supported a recent workshop on monitoring programmes for asteroids and comets in Turin earlier this month, which was sponsored by the European Space Agency and the Spaceguard Foundation among others. The European Space Agency is also mounting a study to produce a system for the co-ordination or the worldwide capability in near earth object research

At the present moment, the Government have no plans to set up a national spaceguard agency, but we will consider the possibility when we receive the report of the Turin meeting. Any additional work undertaken in the UK must have benefit over and above that being taken internationally.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, I thank the Minister for Science for that Answer, which I shall study with interest. Is he aware of the most recent astronomical data which forecast that a potentially hazardous asteroid designated 1999 AN 10, weighing approximately 2 million tonnes and a kilometre in size, will miss the earth by only 24,000 miles on 7th August 2027 and will possibly impact on its return in 2044?

Is he also aware that, unlike a NATO missile, which travels at approximately 500 miles an hour on a pre-programmed trajectory, AN 10 is approaching earth at 25,000 miles an hour on a chaotic orbit and will require more detailed observational data before the International Astronomical Union can definitely certify it as harmless in the years following its approach in the year 2027?

May I therefore ask the noble Lord the Minister for Science—I am sorry, but the issue is somewhat technical—how he intends to calculate the risk for the next generation posed by the low probability but high consequence threat of 1999 AN 10 and other potentially hazardous asteroids which have a non-zero impact probability?

Furthermore, is the noble Lord the Minister for Science aware that only 10 per cent of near earth objects which could be classified as hazardous have been identified so far?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am aware of the situation and all that information on asteroid 1999 AN 10. It was discovered in January. The estimated probability is one in 500,000 of colliding with the earth during its 2044 encounter. It is therefore extremely remote. It is important that this information is transmitted regularly and we hope that in due course the spaceguard website will convey the information to the public.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if such a centre is to be established in the United Kingdom the obvious place is Armagh observatory in Northern Ireland where they have the experience, have undertaken a great deal of research and where work can be carried out most effectively?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, one of the key issues in this regard is that any programme of detection or deflection should be on an international basis. In view of the fact that we would not be able to tell where such things were going to land until the last moment, it would be absurd if each country were to have its own detection and deflection programme. Therefore, it is important that we have an international effort. The ESA is working on an international effort. When it has been produced we will examine what contribution we can make and the Armagh observatory will be an obvious candidate to play a part in that.

Lord Winston

My Lords, in addition to consulting other agencies, has the Minister considered consulting the right reverend Prelates?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I believe that prayer would certainly be a key part of any strategy.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the asteroid has already landed and is called William Hague?

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, am I right in believing in the odds quoted by the Minister are twice as good as the odds of winning the lottery? Does not that give him cause for concern?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the odds are extremely remote and are comparable to winning the National Lottery. That means we should have one instance about every 100,000 years.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, how does the Minister propose to deflect these objects?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the main consideration in deflection, if it ever gets to that point, is that the longer time one has between the time one observes the object and the time of impact the easier it is to deflect it because one can deal with less force. A number of proposals have been made ranging from impact on the asteroid, to nuclear weapons, to detonation on the surface of the asteroid. Clearly, in most cases, if we observe it early enough it would be possible to think of a strategy to deal with it.

Lord Wilberforce

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the fact that the name of spaceguard and the concept of it was devised many years ago by the eminent science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, now Sir Arthur Clarke, who is a British subject and has his own telescope? Does that not furnish a very strong reason why we should have our own national agency, no doubt working with the international agencies, in order to draw on the great experience and imagination of that great writer?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I must disagree. There are more important considerations as to whether we have our own agency. The first question is whether work should be done by any of the current bodies rather than invoking new agencies.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister has been subjected to the giggle-factor, which is a problem involved with this subject. Does he agree on the general principle that if nations are prepared to pay to preserve their civilised past for the current generation, they should be equally prepared to pay for the preservation of a civilised future for the next generation? Would not a first step in this direction be to subscribe to a national spaceguard centre as part of a European contribution to a global spaceguard programme which could benefit the future of all mankind?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I would not wish to imply in any way that this is a trivial issue. It is a serious issue because mainly, while the chances of impact are extremely small, the impact of any object more than a kilometre in length could be considerable. Therefore, we propose to work through ESA. Of all subjects which come before this House, this is one in respect of which an international effort is the key. We shall play our part in that rather than acting independently.