Last month I had the privilege of participating in the first meeting of the Steering Committee for the fledgling International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), which is up and running. A report on the meeting is now available online. (Thanks to my NASA colleagues Rob Landis and Paul Abell for writing this meeting report.)
The IAWN meeting took place January 13-14 at the Minor Planet Center (MPC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Committee members in attendance included representatives of Russia’s Institute of Astronomy and Academy of Sciences, the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), NASA’s Near Earth Object Program*, the MPC, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the European Space Agency (ESA).
I was asked to organize a panel discussion for the Steering Committee meeting on challenges in communicating about NEO impact hazards. (Thanks to my panel of experts – Dennis Mileti, David Ropeik, and Richard Sheldon – for their contributions.) At the end of their meeting the committee decided to organize a separate workshop for the IAWN on communication issues. (Preliminary planning is under way.)
The IAWN was organized in response to a recommendation from the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). It operates independently of the U.N., at no cost to the U.N., under the auspices of interested national agencies.
A NEO “action team” reporting to COPUOS last year recommended steps toward mitigating NEO impact hazards, including finding potentially hazardous NEOs and identifying those that warrant action. The IAWN was proposed to take on this task.
According to NEO action team chair Sergio Camacho, “The General Assembly of the United Nations has long agreed that an international response is necessary to coordinate and develop mitigation measures to address” NEO impact hazards, including “detection, follow-up, and characterization” of potentially hazardous NEOs and development of possible deflection techniques. “Initial plans for an international response were contained in the recommendations of the Working Group on NEOs. These plans, which included the establishment of the IAWN, were adopted as an outcome of the 50th Session of the UN COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) held in Vienna, Austria from 11-22 February 2013.”
As a first step, the NEO action team “recommended the establishment of the IAWN by continuing to link together the institutions that are already performing many of the necessary functions including: discovering, monitoring and physically characterizing the potentially hazardous NEO population; maintaining an international authoritative clearing house for the receipt, acknowledgment and processing of all NEO observations; recommending policies regarding criteria and thresholds for notification of an emerging impact threat; and developing a strategy using well-defined communication plans and protocols to assist governments in the analysis of impact consequences and in the planning of mitigation responses,” according to Camacho.
See section IX, “Near Earth Objects,” in the draft report on the February 2014 meeting of the Scientific and Technical Committee of COPUOS (A/AC.105/C.1/L.335) for further details about the IAWN – what it is, what it’s supposed to do, how it’s supposed to operate. (Also see my October 28 blog post for clarification of some misconceptions about the IAWN that were propagated in the public discourse a while back.)
*Disclosure: My work is funded in part by NASA’s NEO Program.