13 February 2019

At the 56th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee



The 12th meeting of the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) took place on 13 February 2019 at the Vienna International Centre, in conjunction with the 56th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The meeting was chaired by the European Space Agency (ESA), the recurrent SMPAG Chair (2018-2020) and supported by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) as the Secretariat.


1) Adoption of the agenda and introduction of participants.

The agenda was adopted. The following agencies and institutions were represented at the meeting (AEM, ASI, CNES, CNSA, Czech Republic, DLR, ESA, FFG, ISA, KASI, ROSA, Roscosmos,  NASA, UKSA). Observers for ESO, IAU and UNOOSA participated at the meeting. The meeting was also attended by representatives from American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), Canada (CSA), the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Secure World Foundation, the University of Maryland, the University of Vienna and the Natural History Museum (NHM) Vienna, as observers. Representatives from ASE, COSPAR and NASA also participated remotely.


2) Status of SMPAG and general items

The Chair of SMPAG gave an update on the status of SMPAG and its activities since its meetings in 2018 (the 10th meeting in Vienna in January 2018 and the 11th meeting in Knoxville, USA, in October 2018). The Chair informed that since 2018, China (CNSA) and the Czech Republic (the Ministry of Transport, which is the coordinator of the space activities in the Czech Republic) became members of SMPAG, and that COSPAR became an observer to SMPAG. The SMPAG Chair also informed that the Ad Hoc Working Group on Legal Issues has finalized its report that was presented to the 12th SMPAG meeting. Participants also received a joint IAWN-SMPAG-UN brochure on NEOs and Planetary Defence.

Under this item, the newest member to SMPAG, the Czech Republic, presented NEO related activities in the country, including publication of a book entitled “Planetary Defence: Global Collaboration for Defending Earth from Asteroids and Comets” (Springer, Editor Nikola Schmidt), which also includes a chapter on international collaboration in case of a possible NEO threat and outlines the work of the IAWN, SMPAG and UN in that regard.

The representative of NASA presented information on the US National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan (Strategy and Action Plan) that was released in June 2018 by the White House and is aimed at improving national preparedness to address the hazard of NEO impacts.

The representative of ESA presented ESA’s upcoming Space Safety Programme, an initiative that intends to elevate the current Space Situational Awareness to a more strategic level and will be put before the next ESA Ministerial Council by the ESA Director-General in November 2019. The Programme contains the following main areas for space safety: Space Weather, Planetary Defence, and Space Debris and Clean Space (prevention and remediation).


3) Update on recent events

3.1. Munich Institute for Astro- and Particle Physics (MIAPP) Workshop, May 2018: The 4-week workshop included a variety of planetary defence topics, such as communicating science, asteroid mining, international collaboration in case of a possible threat, work of IAWN and SMPAG. A White Paper will be issued later in May 2019 and shared with SMPAG.

3.2. NEO and Debris Detection Conference at ESOC, 22 – 24 January 2019, Darmstadt, Germany: The Conference was organized at ESOC, and was attended by 250 participants from 27 countries. Proceedings are available

The 8th European Conference on Space Debris is planned to be organized at ESOC in spring 2021.

3.3. ASI-COMPASS ERC EU activities on NEO deflection missions and asteroid dynamics were presented by ASI. This is the project funded by the European Research Centre (ERC) and is aimed at improving direct hit scenarios with multiple fly-bys.  The team comprises ASI, Institute Politecnico di Milano and IAPS/INAF, IFAC/CNR. The aims are to: (1) introduce gravity assist of Earth, Mars and Venus in the design of a deflection mission (kinetic impactor,

maximise achievable deflection) and (2) apply the method to a single real NEO and to a synthetic population of NEOs spread through all the spectrum of orbital parameters and analyse the global qualitative results.

3.4. EU activity Stardust-R was presented by UKSA: Stardust-R is a €3.9M research and training network supported by the European Commission H2020 to focus on asteroid and space debris issues on a global scale.  It’s a 4-year programme starting 1 January 2019, with the Strathclyde University as the lead coordinator.

3.5. UNISPACE+50: The UNOOSA representative informed SMPAG on the outcomes of UNISPACE+50 convened on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE), on 20 to 21 June 2018 in Vienna, including the way forward for developing a “Space2030” agenda and its implementation plan by member States of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) within a dedicated working group. The UN Brochure “Near-Earth Objects and Planetary Defence” (symbol ST/SPACE/73) was made available at UNISPACE+50 as an outreach material to raise awareness among UN Member States. The publication will also be made available at other space-related conferences, such as IAC, PDC 2019 etc.

4) Recommendation for NEO reconnaissance mission

At its 11th meeting in Knoxville, SMPAG agreed to put forward a recommendation for reconnaissance missions. At this meeting SMPAG discussed the text of a draft recommendation for NEO reconnaissance missions and agreed on a revised draft version to be distributed for final comments and agreed upon during the SMPAG’s 13th meeting.


5) Update on missions:

·       DART (NASA): Targeting the double asteroid Didymos system, to arrive in October 2022. The aim is to test the kinetic impactor technique, which is an action directly linked to the goal 3 of the US National NEO Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan. The mission has been confirmed for full scale development.

·       OSIRIS-Rex (NASA): Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer, launched in September 2016 is scheduled to arrive at Bennu in December 2018. It will survey the asteroid and start its sample collection activities in 2020, with sample return in 2023.

·       Hera mission (ESA) planned objectives were presented, among them the measurement of momentum transfer efficiency from the DART impact on the moon of Didymos. The mission is currently in phase B1, further funding for the mission will be requested at the ESA Council Meeting at Ministerial level in November 2019.


6) IAA Planetary Defense Conference, 29 April to 3 May 2019, in the Washington D.C. area (University of Maryland). Further information is available on a dedicated webpage at The conference will feature 187 papers/posters and will again include a Tabletop Exercise, i.e. the 2019 PDC Hypothetical Asteroid Impact Scenario.

Early-bird registration for the IAA 2019 PDC is opened until 1 March 2019.


7) Report by the SMPAG Ad-Hoc Working Group on Legal Issues

Prof. Irmgard Marboe of the University of Vienna gave an overview of the report by the SMPAG Legal WG. The report contains a legal overview and assessment related to planetary defence under the current treaties and agreements in international law. SMPAG agreed that this report represented an important milestone in the work done by the SMPAG Legal WG and a good starting point to encourage wider discussion on this topic.

SMPAG commended the Legal WG and all its members for the hard work in producing this comprehensive report and thanked Line Drube and Alissa Haddaji for their roles as coordinators of the report. It was pointed out that this report contains the views of the members of the SMPAG Legal WG and does not necessarily express the views of national governments, ministries or agencies.

The report was written in accordance with the mandate of the SMPAG Legal WG, as per its ToRs, that is: to advise SMPAG with regard to legal aspects of NEO threat mitigation; to describe the existing legal context relevant to the work of SMPAG; to identify, formulate, and prioritize relevant legal questions and issues requiring clarification with regard to planetary defence; to suggest, where necessary, possible ways forward to deal with legal questions; and to provide legal advice to SMPAG as required.

The conclusions by the SMPAG Legal WG include the following main points (See also Executive Summary in the Annex)

·       A number of international law rules are applicable to the conduct of planetary defence missions;

·       Additional steps could be taken in the future in order to ensure that planetary defence missions are carried out in conformity with international law;

·       In the case of a NEO impact threat emergency situation, there will be limited time to make decisions and take action;

·       A number of related documents for potential future planetary defence missions could be developed before an actual threat is detected. They could address important points that should be considered before action is taken to mitigate a NEO impact threat;

·       The points considered could include: elements of a mandate for States carrying out a planetary defence mission; a draft agreement by the potentially affected State(s) and the State(s) capable and willing to conduct the mission; modalities for the cooperation among States participating in the mission; common procedures to undertake the mission; liability considerations, such as a limitation or a waiver of liability for States conducting the mission and modalities for the compensation of victims; generally agreed criteria for the selection of planetary defence methods; parameters for the need for authorization for certain planetary defence technologies, most importantly NEDs; safety standards for the conduct of planetary defence missions.

SMPAG also discussed the way forward related to the publication of the report. A decision is still pending. The SMPAG Chair will present some key points of this report as part of his statement on behalf of the SMPAG to STSC. The report remains open for further comments, to be sent to the Legal WG coordinator, with a copy to the SMPAG Chair and the Secretariat by 31 March 2019. The findings of the report will also be presented at the IAA Planetary Defense Conference 2019.


8) Status of work plan items

Status reports were given on the following work plan items:

5.1 Criteria and thresholds for impact response actions (NASA): a written report submitted;

5.2 Mitigation mission types and technologies to be considered (UKSA): no update;

5.3 Mapping of threat scenarios to mission types (ESA): no update;

5.4 Reference missions for different NEO threat scenarios (ASI):  a draft report is in preparation;

5.5 A plan for action in case of a credible threat (NASA/IAA): a draft report is available on the SMPAG webpage for comments;

5.6 Communication guidelines in case of a credible threat (NASA): IAWN will hold a working meeting on this on 14 Feb. and provide an update;

5.7. Produce a road map for future work on planetary defence (DLR): last report was presented in October 2017, DLR to work on an update, together with the Czech Republic;

5.8 Consequences, including failure, of NEO mitigation space missions (FFG): information on discussions and results from the splinter meeting that was held a day prior, on 12 February, was provided. The meeting was hosted by the Director of the Natural History Museum Vienna. A draft report reflecting the outcomes of this splinter meeting is in preparation, inputs are strongly encouraged.

5.9. Criteria for deflection targeting (ROSA): an update and a written status report was provided;

5.10 Study of a nuclear device option: lead is still to be determined; alternative ways of addressing this item might be considered if no lead is found to kick-off this activity;

5.11 Toolbox for a characterisation payload (CNES): an oral report was provided.

The SMPAG Chair proposed to implement a simplified format for the Workplan and an updated structure for the documents repository. The overview/rationale of workplan items would remain, however, the text would not be updated in the Workplan itself. Instead, there would be an indication of the status of the item (active). The SMPAG Secretariat will maintain this workplan.


8) Next SMPAG meeting:

The 13th SMPAG meeting will be held on 13 September 2019 at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching, just outside Munich, preceded by a meeting of the International Asteroid Warning Network on 12 September 2019.


9) AOB

·       Access to real-time infrasound data: SMPAG encourages exploring further options to access infrasound data to detect meter-sized objects impacting Earth to improve knowledge of the population in this size range.

·       Erice Seminar on Planetary Emergencies: An overview was given about the seminar, held from 19 – 23 August 2018 that included a panel on planetary defence, at which work done by IAWN, SMPAG and UNOOSA were presented. The proposal is for the Erice Centre for Scientific Culture to host a dedicated school on NEOs, to be held from 20-24 April 2020.


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Executive Summary of the report of the SMPAG Ad-Hoc Working Group on Legal Issues to the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG)

The Ad-Hoc Working Group on Legal Issues provides this report to the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) with its initial analysis and assessments concerning legal background, issues, and questions related to planetary defence. Much of this report is preliminary and contingent; many points are matters that the legal community has not previously addressed and that remain debatable; and as the relevant facts evolve, additional and revised legal scrutiny may be necessary. Nevertheless, we can offer the following preliminary assessment and we note that unless otherwise specified, the principles set forth below are applicable to whatever planetary defence method is employed in a particular instance:

·       If a State discovers information regarding a significant Near-Earth Object (NEO) impact threat to Earth, such information should be made available in line with the Outer Space Treaty, in particular with Article XI which requires States parties to inform others about the results of space activities to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, also taking into account elementary considerations of humanity.

·       If there is a NEO threat, each State has the right and obligation to try to protect its territory and its population, but there is no obligation under international law to assist other States in any particular way or to any particular degree.

·       Regarding the choice among planetary defence techniques, the possible placement and use of a Nuclear Explosive Device (NED) in outer space would raise particular issues. International treaties to which most nuclear weapon States are party contain specific prohibitions against particular activities: The Outer Space Treaty prohibits placing a nuclear weapon in orbit, installing it on a celestial body, or stationing it in space in any other manner. We conclude that these prohibitions are applicable even to a NED intended to be used for planetary defence rather than as a weapon. The Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibits any nuclear explosion in outer space, regardless of its intended purpose. Obligations on nuclear non-proliferation restrict the spread of nuclear devices and materials. These restrictions would therefore tightly circumscribe the use of a NED for a planetary defence purpose.

·       Any violation of an international obligation in the course of a planetary defence mission, such as the use of NEDs, entails the international responsibility of the States involved and may provide the basis for claims for compensation. There are, however, circumstances, in particular consent, distress and necessity, which could under certain conditions justify actions that are not in compliance with international law. However, utmost care should be applied when invoking such circumstances.

·       The international law applicable to States is also relevant to the space activities of non-State actors such as private corporations. Under the Outer Space Treaty, each party is internationally responsible for the space activities of its governmental agencies and non-governmental entities.

·       A State has liability for damage done by any space object for which it is a launching State. This liability applies for ‘fault’ for damage inflicted on other space objects in outer space. For damage inflicted on Earth, the liability is ‘absolute’ (that is, it applies even without any wrongdoing). Absolute liability includes cases where an asteroid is insufficiently deflected and impacts at a different location compared to where it would have struck if there had been no intervention.

·       If a State, or an international group such as SMPAG or the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), provides diligent warning and assessment about a NEO threat in good faith that turns out to be erroneous, there is no liability under international law.

  • Regarding possible decision-making bodies for planetary defence action planning, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has extraordinary power to supersede rules of international law through a decision, which requires the votes of nine out of fifteen Members and no opposing vote by one of the Permanent Five (P5) Members of the UNSC. Other international institutions and organizations could provide valuable political support for a planetary defence action, but do not have the authority to permit actions that are contrary to international law, such as using a NED.