The moves follow a report by the Near Earth Object Task Force last year which proposed how the UK should best contribute to an international effort on NEOs.
The measures announced today include:
- a review of how UK telescope facilities can be used to identify and monitor potentially hazardous NEOs, to be undertaken by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC);
- setting up a UK facility to provide information and education on NEOs;
- the European Space Agency undertaking to convene a forum of 'decision makers' in the course of 2001 to discuss Europe's role in this area; and
- the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) considering setting up a an international discussion and action forum on the potential threat from near earth objects.
Lord Sainsbury said: 'The potential threat of asteroids and other near earth objects to our planet is an international problem requiring international action.
'The UK through the measures announced today can play an important part in how the international community tackles this potential problem.
'The task force report has had a significant role in raising the profile of the potential threat of NEOs both in the UK and across the international community.'
The government response to the task force report, published today, identifies that the UK has a valuable contribution to make in tackling the potential problem of NEOs. The UK has:
* a strong track record in astronomy and sky surveys;
* telescope facilities suitable for survey work on NEOs;
* particular skills in telescope design and construction in both academia and industry; and * UK industry that produces key technologies, such as imaging chips, necessary for the study of NEOs.
NEOs are asteroid or comets whose orbit brings them close to the Earth. They are both believed to be the remnants from the formation of planets. Most asteroids are composed of rock while comets can be a mixture of rock organic molecules and frozen gases.
The Earth's atmosphere protects against most NEOs smaller than about 50m but larger objects can penetrate the Earth's atmosphere. Fortunately large impacts occur infrequently and objects about 50m in diameter can be expected to impact less than once a century.
Currently there are no known large NEOs whose orbit puts them on collision course with Earth. While the risk of being hit by NEOs is very remote the potential for significant damage exists which is why the potential threat is an issue which requires action by the international community.
The government's response to all the Task Force recommendations is available on the near earth object and BNSC websites at www.nearearthobjects.co.ukand www.bnsc.gov.uk.
The task force consisted of Dr Harry Atkinson (chairman), Sir Crispin Tickell and Professor David Williams.