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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Marcus Hutchins: What we know so far about the arrest of the hero hacker

The 23-year old who stopped the WannaCry malware which attacked the NHS has been arrested in the US. 

In May, Marcus Hutchins - who goes by the online name Malware Tech - became a national hero after "accidentally" discovering a way to stop the WannaCry virus that had paralysed parts of the NHS.

Now, the 23-year-old darling of cyber security is facing charges of cyber crime following a bizarre turn of events that have left many baffled. So what do we know about his indictment?

Arrest

Hutchins, from Ilfracombe in Devon, was reportedly arrested by the FBI in Las Vegas on Wednesday before travelling back from cyber security conferences Black Hat and Def Con.

He is now due to appear in court in Las Vegas later today after being accused of involvement with a piece of malware used to access people's bank accounts.

"Marcus Hutchins... a citizen and resident of the United Kingdom, was arrested in the United States on 2 August, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada, after a grand jury in the Eastern District of Wisconsin returned a six-count indictment against Hutchins for his role in creating and distributing the Kronos banking Trojan," said the US Department of Justice.

"The charges against Hutchins, and for which he was arrested, relate to alleged conduct that occurred between in or around July 2014 and July 2015."

His court appearance comes after he was arraigned in Las Vegas yesterday. He made no statement beyond a series of one-word answers to basic questions from the judge, the Guardian reports. A public defender said Hutchins had no criminal history and had previously cooperated with federal authorities. 

The malware

Kronos, a so-called Trojan, is a kind of malware that disguises itself as legitimate software while harvesting unsuspecting victims' online banking login details and other financial data.

It emerged in July 2014 on a Russian underground forum, where it was advertised for $7,000 (£5,330), a relatively high figure at the time, according to the BBC.

Shortly after it made the news, a video demonstrating the malware was posted to YouTube allegedly by Hutchins' co-defendant, who has not been named. Hutchins later tweeted: "Anyone got a kronos sample."

His mum, Janet Hutchins, told the Press Association it is "hugely unlikely" he was involved because he spent "enormous amounts of time" fighting attacks.

Research?

Meanwhile Ryan Kalember, a security researcher from Proofpoint, told the Guardian that the actions of researchers investigating malware may sometimes look criminal.

“This could very easily be the FBI mistaking legitimate research activity with being in control of Kronos infrastructure," said Kalember. "Lots of researchers like to log in to crimeware tools and interfaces and play around.”

The indictment alleges that Hutchins created and sold Kronos on internet forums including the AlphaBay dark web market, which was shut down last month.

"Sometimes you have to at least pretend to be selling something interesting to get people to trust you,” added Kalember. “It’s not an uncommon thing for researchers to do and I don’t know if the FBI could tell the difference.”

It's a sentiment echoed by US cyber-attorney Tor Ekeland, who told Radio 4's Today Programme: "I can think of a number of examples of legitimate software that would potentially be a felony under this theory of prosecution."

Hutchins could face 40 years in jail if found guilty, Ekelend said, but he added that no victims had been named.

This article also appears on NS Tech, a new division of the New Statesman focusing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Oscar Williams is editor of the NewStatesman's sister site NSTech.