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National Space Science Centre to be the UK Information Centre for Near Earth Objects

DEPARTMENT OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY
P/2001/739                                       
December 2001

EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:01HRS TUESDAY 1 JANUARY 2002

SHOOTING STARS ACROSS THE GALAXY

National Space Science Centre to be the UK Information Centre for Near Earth Objects

The UK's first government backed Information Centre on Near Earth Objects is to be sited at the National Space Science Centre in Leicester, Science Minister Lord Sainsbury announced today.

The facility will also analyse the potential threat from NEO's hitting the earth and provide an extensive range of information about asteroids and comets.

The new centre will be operational by Easter 2002 and supported by the Natural History Museum in London. It will also involve a consortium which includes University of Leicester, Queens University Belfast, W5 in Belfast, Queen Mary University London and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.

Lord Sainsbury said:

"The potential threat from NEO's to our planet has been an issue of increased international interest and concern over recent years.

"By setting up an information centre we are helping the UK play a full and prominent role in an area that requires international action."

The centre will include a website, exhibition and interactive facilities displaying what asteroids and comets are and where they can be found. The centre will:

  • provide information on the nature, number and location of NEOs;

  • explain how these objects can impact the Earth and its atmosphere;

  • provide information on the effects of planetary collision with comets and asteroids;

  • explore the history of impacts within our solar system;

  • explain the risks posed by NEO impact and the likelihood of occurrence, comparing them with more frequently encountered and widely understood hazards;

  • highlight the importance of missions to encounter and rendezvous with NEOs to increase understanding of their characteristics.

The centre will be a focus for sharing information with other sites including the Spaceguard Centre in Wales. Subsequently other sites will be able to update their information on NEO's.

Lord Sainsbury also published today an update report on the "Implementation of the Recommendations of the NEO Task Force". Part of the work has been to identify suitable telescopes, which can be used to track NEO's. So far two telescopes on La Palma in the Canary Islands have been identified as possible sites. The first of these - the Isaac Newton - will be used as a pilot study after February 2002.

Notes to Editors:

1. NEO'S are asteroid or comets whose orbit brings them close to the Earth. They are both believed to be the remnants from the formation of planets. Most asteroids are composed of rock while comets can be a mixture of rock organic molecules and frozen gasses.

2. The risk of being hit is remote, and there are currently no known large asteroids or comets whose orbit puts them on collision course with Earth. However, the potential for significant damage to the Earth and its environment does exist.

3. The Earth's atmosphere protects against objects smaller than about 50m in diameter. Objects above 50m in diameter may survive passage through the atmosphere but will impact the Earth less than once every hundred years on average.

4. In January 2000 the Government set up a Task Force to look into the potential hazards. In February 2001, and in response to the Task Force's recommendations, Lord Sainsbury announced a 4-point package to tackle the potential threat.

5. The Government's response to all the Task Force recommendations is available on the Near Earth Object website at www.nearearthobjects.co.uk together with the NEO Task Force Report. Details of the call for proposals for the NEO Information Centre can be found online at http://www.bnsc.gov.uk. The Task Force consisted of Dr Harry Atkinson (Chairman), Sir Crispin Tickell and Professor David Williams.

6. The update to the Government response to the recommendations of the NEO Task Force Report can be found at www.nearearthobjects.co.uk. Other findings from the update report have emphasised that international collaboration is vital amongst worldwide observation and orbit calculation groups. There have been successful missions such as NEAR and Deep Space 1. In 2002, the OECD Global Science Forum will consider a co-ordinated proposal for an NEO activity.

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