Near Earth, but far out

The mysterious government body that turned a distant asteroid into a global threat.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Politics

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The asteroid 2003 QQ47 has made a bigger impact across the world’s media than it is ever likely to make colliding with the planet.

It was first spotted by scientists at the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research Programme in New Mexico on 24 August 2003. Racing through space at 75,000 miles per hour and weighing 2600million tons, if it collided with Earth it would hit with the force of 20million Hiroshima bombs. Based on one week’s observation, scientists were unable to rule out a collision in 2014. Some of the headlines that followed included: ‘Armageddon set for March 21, 2014’, ‘Asteroid could blast us back to dark ages’. and the more direct ‘Earth is doomed’ (1).

Sounds scary. But in fact, there is no reason to think that 2003 QQ47 will collide with Earth. Calculating the precise location of an asteroid in over a decade’s time is a tricky problem. From one week’s data it is often hard to tell which side of the sun it will land up on, let alone whether it will collide with our planet. So scientists did not issue a warning – they posted a notice to a website calling for observations to more accurately pin down the asteroid’s position and velocity. Further observations have already downgraded the risk of collision, and should soon rule it out all together.

So is this just another case of media sensationalism? Not quite. The headlines were triggered by what must be the most bizarre branch of the British state: the Near Earth Objects (NEO) Information Centre. The UK government has an office dedicated to warning the public about the threat posed by asteroids and comets. Of all the institutions thrown up by the system of organised paranoia under which we are governed, this has to be one of the strangest. It was a press release from the NEO Information Centre that transformed 2003 QQ47 from a posting on an obscure website into a global threat (2).

It is understandable that some astronomers are obsessed by asteroids. They spend their lives investigating, thinking about, and searching for them. No doubt they also spend more time than the rest of us considering the risk of collision. There is nothing wrong in that; after all, developing true expertise often requires dedication to subjects of seemingly little relevance to everyday life.

But what is more worrying is what society has drawn out from the astronomers’ investigations, and the direction we push them in. When astronomers got together to create a ‘Torino scale’ for communicating the risk of asteroid impacts to the public, it was a product of their own insecurities, not public demand (3). A more forward-looking society would just have ignored the Torino scale and demanded instead that astronomers educate us about the amazing discoveries and possibilities for exploration in space. Instead, the government has treated it as a profoundly important initiative.

Setting up the NEO Information Centre was part of the government’s crusade for transparency. The aim of the press release that triggered the 2003 QQ47 scare was clearly to head off an ‘asteroidgate’ in 2014, when it comes out in emails that ministers knew about the risk of a collision as far back as 2003. In a sheepish press release announcing the downgrading of the risk from 2003 QQ47, NEO’s Kevin Yates defended the original story by claiming that ‘openly sharing this sort of information, in a none [sic] sensationalist way, should help to dispel the popular myth that governments and astronomers would keep the discovery of a dangerous asteroid secret’ (4).

Yet the thing most likely to generate ‘popular myths’ about asteroid cover-ups, is the eccentric mission of the NEO Information Centre. Trying to figure out why such an obviously unnecessary body exists might easily drive people to conspiracy theories.

Read on:

Rocking our world?, by Joe Kaplinsky

(1) Earth is doomed, Daily Record, 3 September 2003; Asteroid Heading for Earth, May Hit in 2014, Reuters, 2 September 2003; Asteroid could blast us back to dark ages, 3 September 2003, Mirror, 3 September 2003

(2) Potentially Hazardous Asteroid given Torino 1 rating, Near Earth Objects Information Centre, 2 September 2003

(3) See the Torino Scale section of the NASA Asteroid Comet Impact Hazards website

(4) Latest on 2003 QQ47, Near Earth Objects Information Centre, 3 September 2003

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Topics Politics


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