The UN finally has a plan for dealing with dangerous asteroids

Surprisingly, until a vote last week there was no unified international programme for dealing with the possibility of an asteroid threat.

In the movies, the Americans stop the asteroids. As of this week that responsibility falls to the UN (sort of).

As a result of a vote by the General Assembly last week, the International Asteroid Warning Group will be conjured into existence as a place for countries around the world to share information about dangerous asteroids. Here’s Clara Moskowitz in Scientific American:

If astronomers detect an asteroid that poses a threat to Earth, the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will help coordinate a mission to launch a spacecraftto slam into the object and deflect it from its collision course. 

[Former astronaut Ed] Lu and other members of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) recommended these steps to the UN as a first step to address at the long-neglected problem of errant space rocks. “No government in the world today has explicitly assigned the responsibility for planetary protection to any of its agencies,” ASE member Rusty Schweickart, who flew on the Apollo 9 mission in 1969, said Friday at the American Museum of Natural History. “NASA does not have an explicit responsibility to deflect an asteroid, nor does any other space agency.” The ASE advocates that each nation delegate responsibility for dealing with a potential asteroid impact to an internal agency - before the event is upon us.

The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space referred to above is a body that’s been around since 1959. It’s something of a relic of the Cold War, as it was set up in the aftermath of the Sputnik launch in 1958, and it will fall to this committee to coordinate our global space defence if an asteroid comes our way.

Something to consider here is that we don’t have a proven method of stopping an asteroid, so coordinating research into that kind of technology might be one of the committee’s first tasks. Possible methods proposed by scientists include explosions (obviously), deflection with a large object, ion beams, powerful lasers, and even converting it into a kind of rocky spaceship by attaching spaceship engines to it.

Even if governments aren’t totally on the ball when it comes to spotting asteroids, however, there are private organisations that are also watching the skies. Ed Lu (mentioned above) has flown on the space shuttle and carried out a mission aboard the International Space Station, and was one of those who recommended the creation of the International Asteroid Warning Group to the UN. He’s also the founder of the B612 Foundation, which is planning on launching its own asteroid-seeking space telescope (Sentinel) in 2017. B612, by the way, is the name of the asteroid that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince lives on.

Scientific American quotes Lu as claiming that there are a hundred times more asteroids “out there” than we’ve found so far. Is that true? Probably.

According to Nasa, we’ve found 95 percent of asteroids that pose a danger to Earth that are bigger than 1km in diameter. That’s good - those are the ones that would cause mass extinctions (including our own). But we also know that it doesn’t take even a tenth of that to cause widespread destruction. The asteroid that caused the Tunguska event is estimated to have been at least 60m wide, while the Chelyabinsk meteor was probably no larger than 20 metres and injured nearly 2,000 people.

Nasa thinks that there are probably around 19,000 asteroids between 100 metres and 1km in size that post a risk to Earth, and millions more that are smaller even than that. We’ll be able to deflect asteroids (hopefully) if we have enough warning that they’re coming, and we’ll spot them further in advance the bigger they are. And while a civilisation-killing piece of deadly space rock isn’t quite as dramatic, the random chances of death from above on a smaller town, city, or village-like scale is still a rather worrying prospect.

The United Nations headquarters. (Image: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.