Press Release

Science Minister Announces Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects

By SpaceRef Editor
December 30, 1999
Filed under

Department of Trade and Industry

London, England


A Task Force to look at the potential for risk posed by Near Earth Objects (NEOs) has been
announced by Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury.

The three-strong team will make proposals to the British National Space Centre on the nature of the
hazard and the potential levels of risk. It will also consider how the United Kingdom should best
contribute to international effort on NEOs.

The Task Force will be chaired by Dr Harry Atkinson, formerly of the Science and Engineering
Research Council (SERC) and past Chairman of the European Space Agency’s Council. Two other
appointees, Sir Crispin Tickell and Professor David Williams join Dr Atkinson.

Lord Sainsbury said: “The risk of an asteroid or comet causing substantial damage is extremely
remote. This is not something that people should lie awake at night worrying about. But we cannot
ignore the risk, however remote, and a case can be made for monitoring the situation on an
international basis.

“I hope that the setting up of this Task Force will help the UK play a full and prominent role in
international discussions on this important issue. I am delighted to be able to announce such a
well-qualified team of experts and I look forward to receiving their report by the middle of 2000.”

Notes to Editors:

1. Near Earth Objects are either asteroids or comets. Many NEOs have been identified and their
orbits determined using ground-based telescopes, including some of NASA’s, in a number of
countries, although many remain to be surveyed.

2. Of the known NEOs, none is believed to pose a significant risk to the Earth in the foreseeable
future. However, on a time-scale of many millions of years, the Earth has been hit by objects of
sufficient size to cause serious damage, including the object which is thought to have impacted
the Earth about 65 million years ago, with global consequences including the extinction of the

3. The British National Space Centre has responsibility for co-ordination with the work of other
agencies on the threat to the Earth from space debris and NEOs.

4. Dr Harry Atkinson, a New Zealander by birth, has had many years of experience in dealing with
science and technology internationally. This has involved both intergovernmental organisations
(such as the ESA) and the co-ordination of activities between national agencies (including NASA).
He was attached to the Cabinet Office in the early 1970s, on the staff of the Chief Scientific
Advisor, where his tasks included reviewing all governmental activities in environmental pollution.

Subsequently, in the Science Research Council his responsibilities included astronomy and space.
This involved UK co-operation with other countries in many space science missions, and in
ground-based astronomical facilities in Australia, South Africa, Hawaii and La Palma.

He helped to set up the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility at Grenoble and the EISCA
facility in the Arctic Circle; and was concerned with the high-flux Beam Reactor (ILL), also at
Grenoble. Until a year ago, he was Chief Scientist of the British insurance industry’s Loss Prevention

5. Sir Crispin Tickell has been Chancellor of the University of Kent since 1996 and has a
distinguished diplomatic career. He was Permanent Secretary of the Overseas Development
Agency, 1984-87, British Permanent Representative to UN, 1987-90, and Warden of Green College,
Oxford, 1990-97.

Sir Crispin has played a prominent role in presiding, chairing and advising committees and
associations on environmental issues. These include Chairmanship of the International Institute for
Environment and development; the Climate Institute of Washington; Earth Watch (Europe) and the
Advisory Committee on the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species since 1992. He is author of
a wide range of environmental publications.

6. Professor David Williams holds the Perren Chair of Astronomy at University College London and
is President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was previously Reader in Mathematics and
Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and
Technology, UMIST, and has worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. He is co-author of
titles on interstellar chemistry and astrophysics, and has published over 200 articles in learned

SpaceRef staff editor.