The greatest threat to life on Earth may come from space

The greatest threat to life on Earth may come from space

  • #space #Asteroids #DART
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A large eruption on the surface of the sun

Asteroids and space debris could wreak untold devastation on the planet

Next year, Nasa will launch what all involved hope will be the most impactful space mission to date. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (Dart) is designed to smash headlong into its target. It’s an attempt to deflect an asteroid as a test of what to do if we spot a similar space rock on a collision course with our planet.

It’s hardly news we want to hear at a time of so many domestic problems, but the threat from near-Earth asteroids is just one of a string of dangers that the planet and its technology are facing from space. Explosions on the sun create “space weather” that can play havoc with our satellites and other electrical systems, while the growing amount of space debris imperils the satellites that we all invisibly rely on.

The truth is our way of life utterly relies on space. The UK government now classes space as one of the nation’s 13 critical infrastructure sectors. And it needs protecting.

This November, science ministers from the various countries that belong to the European Space Agency (Esa) will gather in Seville, Spain, to decide the agency’s funding and priorities for the next three years. Attending the meeting is not something that depends on Brexit. Esa is an independent organisation from the EU, and the UK has every intention of staying a member no matter what happens on 31 October. Included in that will be the creation of a comprehensive €200m a year programme of planetary defence.

One spacecraft hits the asteroid, the other measures what happens. Nasa and Esa collaborate to split the cost

If approved, it would begin with a mission called Hera. This would investigate the aftermath of Nasa’s Dart impact, collecting enough data to turn the impact test into a workable asteroid defence programme. And that’s not all.

Called Space Safety, the programme also proposes missions to warn us against space weather and begin the removal of space debris. “All threats are viewed as equally important,” says Holger Krag, head of the programme.

But that might not be the view of the various member countries, where funding is likely to be limited. If the full €200m is not forthcoming, ministers will have to decide which threats to tackle and which ones to simply cross our fingers over.