Here's a hypothetical scenario: a mountainous asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. The world's governments are scrambling to notify their citizens. What country (countries?) should take charge? Where should people turn for instructions on how best to prepare for the impending impact? How will notifications and updates be organized and distributed?
As far as we know, there is currently no such thing as a worldwide asteroid warning system — no protocol for imminent, large-scale extraterrestrial impact. Do you feel like there ought to be? You're not alone. This week, the nonprofit Secure World Foundation will present a report to the United Nations proposing the institution of an "Information, Analysis and Warning Network" for near-Earth objects.
"Today no worldwide disaster-notification protocol of any kind exists," the report reads. "The closest analogy might be the cooperative early-warning system developed for tsunamis in the wake of the devastating inundation of the coasts of Southeast Asia in 2004."
The report [PDF] is the product of a two-day meeting held last November between Secure World Foundation and the Association of Space Explorers, and is meant to assist the UN in developing an Information, Analysis and Warning Network (IAWN) for near-Earth objects.
SPACE.com's Mike Wall sums up the rationale behind the proposal:
Colossal asteroid strikes, which have pummeled Earth fairly regularly over its 4.5 billion years, know no international borders. If a threatening near-Earth object... comes onto scientists' radar, the whole world will need to know — and they'll need to know what, if anything, they should do in response.
Scientists have identified nearly 9,000 near-Earth asteroids and believe lots more are out there. Many different teams of astronomers around the world are hunting for them and keeping tabs on the ones that have been found.
The warning network would help streamline and consolidate many of these efforts, the report says.
It's hard to imagine why anybody wouldn't be supportive of this. This is basic emergency preparedness, people — it's important to have a plan in place long before a plan is necessary, lest we be left high and dry, forced to fall back on the ol' throw-Bruce-Willis-at-it-and-hope-it-goes-away routine:
"In technical organisations, communications with the public are often treated more as an afterthought than a critical mission element," said Dr. Ray Williamson — former professor of Space Policy and International Affairs at George Washington University, and senior advisor at Secure World Foundation — in a release. "This report emphasises how important clear, effective, and accurate assessments to the public of the danger posed by a threatening near-Earth object are to the ultimate goal of protecting human life and property."
Information is Key
But where this proposal really shines is in the emphasis it places on increasing public awareness about near-Earth objects in general. Remember: IAWN stands for Information, Analysis and Warning Network.
"Another key component of IAWN is education and outreach, to relay information on NEO hazards and implications to the public and policymakers," the report reads. "This information will generally serve to alter the general view that the cosmos has little effect on humanity here on Earth, by explaining the consequences of a NEO impact on our home planet."
This outreach will focus not only on presenting measured, realistic information about the risks posed by near-Earth objects, but their potential benefit, as well (dedicating attention to the promise of projects like asteroid mining, for example).
Accomplishing these goals effectively, the report concludes, will "require using mass communication tools effectively — from television and the Internet to social networking." In doing so, the proposal seeks to strike a well-informed balance in the minds of the world's citizens. And that makes sense — because let's face it, a warning system without information and analysis is almost as useless as having no warning system in place at all.
"A lot of attention is focused on the catastrophic damage a large asteroid could do if it collided with Earth," explained Dr. Michael Simpson, Executive Director of Secure World Foundation, in a statement. "This report focuses on how to prevent the even greater damage we could cause ourselves by mis-communicating or failing to work together on a common response to the threat."
You can read the report in its entirety at Secure World Foundation [PDF].