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An asteroid that's 45 meters across is headed towards Earth - its impact will unleash 3-5 megatons of energy, equivalent to hundreds of atomic bombs. Unfortunately the world's governments are so badly-prepared that nobody responds to the danger until it's too late. Now a group called the Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation is working with the United Nations to make sure this never comes to pass, and astronaut Rusty Schweickart has just published an interesting article about the work he's doing with the group.

Writing on SciFi's How You Can Save the World blog, Schweickart says:

We’ve now got a nascent early warning system — albeit not well coordinated or securely funded. Furthermore, while no world space agency has yet demonstrated the space technology to deflect an asteroid, the techniques are pretty well understood. In fact, JPL just completed a detailed performance analysis on the gravity tractor concept for the B612 Foundation, and it works just fine. On paper.

So while these two essential legs of a protective triad sort-of exist, the third leg — making a decision to act — is basically nowhere. Who is in charge? Who issues warnings? . . . Who orders an evacuation if it’s too late for a deflection?

Sure, we could leave all this to the emergence of a threat and see how it all settles out in real time. That would be typical of bureaucracy at the domestic level, let alone at the international level. But unlike global warming or many other huge socio-political issues, this one is 1) pretty clear science-wise, and 2) cheap to “solve.” In this case solve = prevent an impact . . . [But] action has to be taken 12 or more years prior to a predicted impact and political systems are simply not good at addressing lead times of that magnitude (to understate it!).

At last, however, the U.N. is addressing this issue. Schweickart's group is putting together a report on how to respond to potential meteorite impact, and will present it next year to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Unfortunately solutions like that you see on Armageddon won't work, at least, not even in practical.

We Can Prevent Astroid Impacts [via How You Can Save the World]