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The UN in Outer Space

UN outer space panel mulls space-based disaster-management and virtual doctors


Satellite-based disaster-management, virtual space doctors and the potential threat of an asteroid or meteor crashing into Earth were among key agenda items of the latest session of a United Nations panel on outer space.

As part of a new, multiyear work plan, the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was briefed on how space-based technologies contributed to relief efforts following the Asian tsunami disaster of December 2004 and could be used generally for disaster management.

Data and information from a number of Earth observation and meteorological satellites, including high resolution satellite imagery, were used by relief and disaster response agencies in the aftermath of the catastrophe. Emergency satellite-based communications were crucial in saving lives and reducing human suffering by establishing remote medical services.

The Subcommittee, which ended a two-week meeting in Vienna on 4 March, approved the terms of reference of an ad hoc group of experts to develop a study on the possibility of creating an international space coordination entity to support disaster management.

Member States were also briefed on the application of satellite-based telemedicine in health care, and its benefits for epidemiology, offsite radiology services, cardiac monitoring, medical consultations and specialist referrals, correctional care and tele-education in health care.

The Subcommittee noted that space system-based telemedicine could provide significantly improved and cost-effective access to quality health care, transform the delivery of health care and improve the health of millions of people throughout the world.

On so-called Near-Earth objects, including asteroids and meteors which may pass the Earth's orbit, the Subcommittee noted that although the probability for collision with Earth was very low, such objects nonetheless posed a potential threat.

Given sufficient warning time, countermeasures to either fragment or deflect an incoming near-Earth object were possible but such activities would require a large and coordinated international effort, it added.

The panel also considered the possible collision of space objects with space debris, including those with nuclear power sources on board, and reviewed the use of nuclear power sources in outer space.

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