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Earthlings unite to confront the asteroid menace

The first meeting of an international group tasked with figuring out how to react to asteroids that threaten our very existence is set for next week.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Eric Mack
3 min read
A new international group meets for the first time in February to coordinate efforts to predict and prevent major asteroid impacts. ESA

Next week in Germany, representatives of all mankind's space-faring nations will get together in a room to begin coordinating efforts to prevent the end of the world...or at least to figure out how to identify and prevent really big space rocks from smacking us around like that meteor that hit Russia last year.

We've all watched those scenes in science fiction movies where the leaders of the planet (or planets) all sit around a large table and come to a consensus about the best way to confront the latest existential threat. I'm always left wondering where the heck they get such a huge table, and how they managed to come up with a unanimous plan of action in less than 5 minutes. It's a little different from the endless gabfest of political posturing translating to minimal real-world action that is a meeting of today's United Nations.

Or is it? The first ever meeting of the Space Mission Planning and Advisory Group (SMPAG, pronounced "same page" -- see what they did there?) set to be hosted by the European Space Agency on February 6 and 7 sounds a little more like the Hollywood version of consensus-making, just with less melodrama and fewer ridiculously beautiful people everywhere.

SMPAG was created under the auspices of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and represents the first-ever international effort to get all of humanity on yes, the same page, when it comes to responding to asteroid threats. The first meeting of the group next week will include more than 30 representatives from the UN and 13 space agencies from five continents.

"SMPAG will also develop and refine a set of reference missions that could be individually or cooperatively flown to intercept an asteroid," Detlef Koschny, head of the ESA's near-Earth object program, said in a statement. "These include precursor missions or test and evaluation missions, which we need to fly to prove technology before a real threat arises."

Reading between the lines of that bureaucrat-speak, what SMPAG really amounts to is a bunch of nerds getting together to rewrite the script of 1998's "Armageddon," using real science and technology rather than Jerry Bruckheimer's flair for tense action sequences and the jutting jaws of Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis.

"As a first step, the group will study each agency's organizational and operational capabilities, specific technologies and scientific abilities, and propose options that make best use of who can do what, the best," Koschny said.

As faithful Crave readers are well aware, a number of asteroid-tracking and interception efforts are already in the works. NASA is looking into capturing its own pet asteroid for study and the ESA's Rosetta spacecraft is set to land on a comet later this year.

Just think, if we can land a robot probe on an orbiting comet, maybe the notion of sending Bruce Willis to jump on an asteroid and nuke it before it annihilates us all isn't just a Hollywood premise after all. But maybe we could try a little old-fashioned C-4 first...if SMPAG is ready to make the call.