By Ray Fleming
Technically speaking NASA's success in hitting the comet Tempel 1 83 million miles from earth at a collision speed of 23'000 mph was a remarkable achievement. “Right now we are minus one spacecraft,” said a NASA engineer, “And there is a comet in the sky wondering what the hell hit it.” The purpose of the $333 million mission was to make possible the most detailed study of a comet ever undertaken; the crater caused by the collision should have allowed some of the primal material at the comet's core to spill out, to be analysed by instruments on another flyby NASA craft. In other words the crash may enable us to understand more about the formation of the solar system 4.5 million years ago. All very praiseworthy, especially when the big hit was made on Independence Day in the United States. But hold on a moment. Who owns the comet which was treated to an outer space version of a destruction Derby? The assumption, perhaps, is that no one would want to claim ownership of the lump of ice and rock the size of a large town, but can we be sure of that? No one on our globe, obviously, but how do we know there is no one else out there who might even now be considering how to launch a retaliatory strike against planet earth? There is a United Nations Office for Outer Space and there is an Outer Space Treaty one of whose provisions concerns “international liability for damage caused by space objects”. Did NASA consult or inform the UN Office about its intention to make a pre-emptive strike against the Tempel 1 comet? Almost certainly not. Most people would argue that the United States has “every right” to conduct such experiments that will increase our knowledge of the universe we live in. But is that necessarily true? And who would be held responsible if the “primal material” that escapes from Tempel 1 were eventually to make its way to earth, with unpredictable results?
Just asking.

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