Four items follow:
* UK Government update on implementation of the recommendations of the NEO Task Group
* UK Press Release on selection of a new government NEO Information Centre
* Article by Tim Radford of The Guardian on NEOs from a British persecutive
* Article from Dan Vergano of USA Today on NEOs from an American perspective
IMPLEMENTATION OF THE RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE UK NEO TASK FORCE -- AN UPDATE
It is now over 9 months since the initial Government response to the recommendations of the Task Force that I set up to report on potentially hazardous Near Earth Objects - asteroids and comets that pass close enough to the Earth to be called 'near'.
In this update I am pleased to announce the choice of the location for the UK NEO Information Centre as the National Space Science Centre (NSSC) in Leicester supported by the Natural History Museum (NHM). I look forward to seeing this Centre developing in harmony with the ongoing research activities in the UK and internationally. The UK Centre will share information with the range of other locations that are active in the field. This will include those in the NSSC Consortium; Queens University Belfast, Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre, United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre, University of Edinburgh, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Leicester as well as the recently set up Spaceguard Centre in Wales. It is hoped that many other sites will be able to update their information on NEOs and make use of the developments at the new information centre.
Dr Alan Fitzsimmons of Queens University, Belfast, has now completed the review that PPARC commissioned on possible telescope facilities within its sphere of influence that could be available for NEO related activities. Some recommendations have been made for the use, in particular, of two telescopes on La Palma in the Canary Islands and this will be followed up in earnest over the next few months. While details of the source of funds to support ongoing operations still need to be identified, suitable telescopes will become available that could assist the work of tracking NEOs (so that once found they are not lost again), finding new NEOs (fainter and therefore smaller and more numerous than have been discovered before), and follow up observations (to characterise NEOs). The planned use of the Isaac Newton telescope on La Palma to find faint NEOs will be tested during a pilot run, still to be scheduled but taking place some time in the six-month period starting in February 2002. We can even hope that this pilot study will itself discover a new faint NEO or two.
Various groups worldwide are now considering the NEO issue from an international perspective and recent meetings such as the Japanese International Workshop have helped to develop ideas for better and more broadly based collaboration amongst the observation and orbit calculation groups worldwide. It is also significant that the European Space Science Committee (ESSC) of the European Science Foundation (ESF) considered the NEO issue, along with other important issues, in its general position paper covering recommendations to Ministers of European Space Agency (ESA) Member States. On NEOs it reported that "The ESSC-ESF endorses the conclusions of the UK Task Force and believes that the threat posed to humanity by NEO impacts is real and similar in character to other risks of low probability but high consequence which governments take very seriously e.g. earthquakes and volcanic activity."
A great deal has been achieved in 2001 with the success of NASA missions such as NEAR and Deep Space 1, which rendezvoused with asteroids and comets, but much more is planned from new scientific missions. The ESA Rosetta spacecraft to Comet Wirtanen is currently being put together at the ESA integration and test facility at ESTEC in the Netherlands; one of its scientific instruments was successfully completed in the UK and safely delivered to the spacecraft earlier this year. ESA's work beyond Rosetta will be focussed in the new Aurora programme for planetary exploration that was brought forward to the recent ESA Ministerial Council which I hosted in Edinburgh. The definition phase of the programme was approved at the meeting, and I committed the UK's participation.
I will ensure that further progress with implementation of the recommendations of the Task Force is reported at www.nearearthobjects.co.uk and via the UK NEO Information Centre.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville December 2001
More detail related to specific areas follows . Update on the Task Force Recommendations
Telescopes applied to NEO activities (covering recommendations 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5) 1. The Fitzsimmons Report to PPARC on the use of telescopes within the UK's sphere of influence makes a number of recommendations on the use of the telescopes on La Palma, at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and elsewhere. It reiterates the longstanding commitment by PPARC to carry out high quality scientific research into NEOs on any of its telescopes including its large ones via the peer review process. The specific proposals made by Fitzsimmons for the use for large NEO programmes of the telescopes in the Isaac Newton Group on La Palma have been discussed at governing board level with PPARC's Spanish and Dutch partners. The Jacobus Kepteyn Telescope (tracking of NEOs found elsewhere) and the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT)(search for fainter NEOs and characterisation of NEOs) may be available subject to funding being identified. The planned use of the INT will be tested for a few nights to be scheduled some time during the observing period of 6 months starting in February 2002, in a pilot run expected to prove the equipment and software in its planned configuration.
NEOs and scientific research (covering aspects of recommendations 3, 6 & 8) 2. No specific further action has been taken in the area of broadening the inclusion of NEO activities in scientific mission planning but it is becoming clear that this approach is becoming more widely accepted. The UK supported, and, from PPARC funds subscribed its share to the definition phase of the new Aurora planetary exploration programme approved at the recent ESA Ministerial Council. The programme objectives include the possibility that space missions to NEOs will be one tangible way that such activity can be funded in the future. Other possibilities will also be addressed in the future.
3. As to mounting further space rendezvous missions, recent successes should increase the interest and improve the chances for such missions. A number of proposals in this area are under development and will be considered for funding within the US and Europe.
4. There is no new activity to report in the area of multi-disciplinary studies beyond the ongoing work on the IMPACT project of the European Science Foundation where the UK Open University is involved.
Coordination of astronomical observations (recommendation 7) 5. Work is progressing to place the funding of the Minor Planet Center (MPC) on a firm financial footing and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has signed a formal contract regarding the organisation of the IAU MPC, ensuring that its operation and data access policies will allow it to continue its key role as the global clearing-house for data and orbit computations for NEOs.
Studies into mitigation measures (recommendation 9) 6. A workshop, "International Space Cooperation: Addressing Challenges of the New Millennium" was organised in March 2001 under the auspices of the international activities committee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). It addressed this area and made some suggestions. The workshop included a working group which considered "An international approach to detecting Earth-threatening asteroids and comets and responding to the threat they pose". The group explored the issues surrounding Earth-threatening asteroids and comets and made recommendations on how the international community should approach the issues posed by these objects. More details can be found at http://www.aiaa.org/information/international.html .
Increasing international understanding of the issues (recommendation 10 & 11) 7. The OECD Global Science Forum will consider a coordinated proposal on an NEO activity at its January 2002 meeting. A workshop with the specific aim of producing recommendations to the Global Science Forum (GSF) of the OECD for action by Member States is planned. The UK will help to carry forward the recommendation from the UN World Space Conference (UNISPACE III) "`to improve the international coordination of activities related to NEOs". To this end the UK is working with the US and other countries to consider the role of the UN in this area. Most importantly support has been offered by relevant international organisations such as the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), the International Astronomical Union (IAU), The Spaceguard Foundation and the European Space Science Committee (ESSC) of the European Science Foundation (ESF) as well as the European Space Agency.
National coordination and information dissemination (recommendations 12, 13 & 14) 8. The BNSC is continuing its lead role in Whitehall on policy in the NEO area. In carrying out this task it has been well supported by its partners from PPARC, OST, FCO and MOD. The Emergency Planning Division of the Cabinet Office will continue to lead in their area of expertise.
9. The newly launched NEO Information Centre will address significant aspects of recommendation 14 and has the potential to assist with parts of recommendation 13. More details will follow as the centre becomes operational.
BNSC January 2002
FOR RELEASE 1 JANUARY 2002
SHOOTING STARS ACROSS THE GALAXY
National Space Science Centre to be the UK Information Centre for Near Earth Objects
The UK's first government backed Information Centre on Near Earth Objects is to be sited at the National Space Science Centre in Leicester, Science Minister Lord Sainsbury announced today.
The facility will also analyse the potential threat from NEO's hitting the earth and provide an extensive range of information about asteroids and comets.
The new centre will be operational by Easter 2002 and supported by the Natural History Museum in London. It will also involve a consortium which includes University of Leicester, Queens University Belfast, W5 in Belfast, Queen Mary University London and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.
Lord Sainsbury said:
"The potential threat from NEO's to our planet has been an issue of increased international interest and concern over recent years.
"By setting up an information centre we are helping the UK play a full and prominent role in an area that requires international action."
The centre will include a website, exhibition and interactive facilities displaying what asteroids and comets are and where they can be found. The centre will:
* provide information on the nature, number and location of NEOs; * explain how these objects can impact the Earth and its atmosphere; * provide information on the effects of planetary collision with comets and asteroids; * explore the history of impacts within our solar system; * explain the risks posed by NEO impact and the likelihood of occurrence, comparing them with more frequently encountered and widely understood hazards; * highlight the importance of missions to encounter and rendezvous with NEOs to increase understanding of their characteristics.
The centre will be a focus for sharing information with other sites including the Spaceguard Centre in Wales. Subsequently other sites will be able to update their information on NEO's.
Lord Sainsbury also published today an update report on the "Implementation of the Recommendations of the NEO Task Force". Part of the work has been to identify suitable telescopes, which can be used to track NEO's. So far two telescopes on La Palma in the Canary Islands have been identified as possible instruments. The first of these - the Isaac Newton - will be used as a pilot study after February 2002.
INFORMATION CENTRE IS RESPONSE TO THREAT FROM ASTEROIDS
From The Guardian, 1 January 2002
Tim Radford, science editor
The long-awaited government response to the threat of death from outer space is to be a new information centre, the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, announces today.
Lord Sainsbury more than a year ago received a far-reaching government report on the menace of comets and asteroids which, periodically, hit the Earth with the force of a thousand Hiroshimas.
"By setting up an information centre, we are helping the UK play a full and prominent role in an area that requires international action," Lord Sainsbury said.
The information centre on near Earth objects or NEOs - the term for hurtling lumps of metal, ice and rock that present a traffic hazard in space - will be based at the national space centre in Leicester, and should be open by Easter.
It will be backed by £300,000 over three years from government funds, and experts based there will analyse the probabilities of a direct hit by any of the hundreds of potentially hazardous objects so far identified.
The centre will work with the Natural History Museum in London and a consortium involving the University of Leicester, Queen's University in Belfast, Queen Mary College, London and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.
But today's announcement still leaves astronomers hoping for more. Two telescopes on La Palma in the Canary islands could be used to track NEOs and one of them will be used for a trial period after February, the announcement says.
Every week, the Earth collides with thousands of tons of dust and stones hurtling through space at up to 20 miles a second. Every few years, larger boulders hit the upper atmosphere and burn up.
In the past decade, planetary scientists have realised that in the long run, even bigger impacts are inevitable. Every few hundred years something 50 metres or more across explodes with colossal force.
The government's near Earth objects task force set out 14 recommendations, which included advanced new telescopes dedicated to searching the skies in both hemispheres, and a series of steps to cooperate with international teams to spot potential hazards and dream up ways to deflect them.
Today's decision implements only the 14th recommendation and, ironically, is announced three days after Spaceguard UK, a private group led by Jonathan Tate, announced its own comet and asteroid information network, centred at Knighton in Powys.
Privately, astronomers yesterday were grumbling about Britain's claims of a "leading role" in the search for dangerous objects in space. Some pointed out that Britain had so far done almost nothing. Others welcomed any action at all.
"A desperate need for the global Spaceguard project is southern hemisphere coverage: half the sky is uncovered at present. The task force report highlighted this," said Duncan Steel, a physicist at Salford University.
"And yet the UK has recently announced its withdrawal from the Anglo-Australian Observatory. Between 1990 and 1996, I directed the only NEO search programme ever to use British facilities, based at the Anglo-Australian Observatory - but it was funded entirely by the Australian government."
Copyright 2001, The Guardian
SCIENTISTS ARGUE OVER ODDS OF ASTEROID HITTING
From USA Today, 1 January 2002
by Dan Vergano
Ever worry about being hit by an asteroid? How about being eaten by a bear?
Both awful fates figured in a recent astronomical debate that started out scholarly, with one group scaling down the risks of an asteroid striking Earth, then another group invoking the bear scenario to make fun of the first group's assumptions.
To non-scientists, the dispute may have seemed like an academic numbers game set in the silence of space. But it had some astronomers shouting mad down here on Earth, arguing that the stakes involve public perceptions about the threat to Earth from asteroids, and perhaps public funding for efforts to determine the risk.
An indication of that ongoing concern surfaced Jan. 1, 2002 in Great Britain when a collection of science centers launched the Comet and Asteroid Information Network to "provide timely, accurate and unbiased information" about potential asteroid strikes.
The current trouble over mixed messages started last month when Sloan Digital Sky Survey researchers, led by Princeton's Zeljko Ivezic, announced that only about 700,000 half-mile-size rocks dwell in the asteroid "main belt" between Mars and Jupiter, not the 2 million such objects they expected to find. The Sloan project usually sets its sights on more distant objects: Its main mission is to survey far-off galaxies.
From the survey, published last month in the Astronomical Journal, the researchers set only 1-in-5,000 odds of a city-size asteroid smacking into Earth and killing hundreds of millions of people sometime in the next century - down, they said, from the roughly 1-in-1,500 odds set by earlier estimates.
Some newspapers responded with stories about the lowered threat from above, drawing the ire of astronomers who directly study "near-Earth" asteroids, ones that travel outside the main belt closer to the Sun in Earth's neighborhood, of which about 1,500 are known. One scientist called the Sloan report "BLATHER" on an astronomy discussion list, objecting not to its estimate, but to its methods.
Another critic, David Morrison of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., says objections to the Sloan study center on:
* Using main-belt asteroids as a surrogate for near-Earth asteroid numbers.
* Basing the estimate on the assumption that one massive asteroid strike happens every 100 million years. Critics called this an arbitrary assumption.
* The notion that the estimate lowered the risk. Jet Propulsion Laboratory estimates have varied from 1 in 4,000 to 1 in 8,800, Morrison notes. While some have placed the risk as high as 1 in 1,000, that estimate never represented a consensus among near-Earth astronomers.
Either way, critics note there isn't a huge amount of difference between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 5000 odds, statistically. It's the appearance of a falling risk, rather than the reality, that triggered their dismay.
The critiques climaxed with an anonymous parody of the Sloan announcement, sent from the "Slone Digital Survey," that suggested the risk of a North American being eaten by bears was way down, based on a survey of African hippos. The "Slone 'Digital' Survey," noted the parody, "gets its name from the fact that one of its major purposes is giving a middle finger to researchers in other areas."
In response to such objections, Ivezic suggested that critics "haven't read our paper very carefully."
Caught somewhat in the middle of the controversy is asteroid expert Robert Jedicke of the University of Arizona in Tucson. He was quoted as an outside expert in the Sloan announcement, agreeing with the numeric value of its risk-impact estimate, part of the study he calls unimportant.
From his perspective, the study is most valuable for providing a uniform survey of the main-belt asteroids. He says the Sloan near-Earth-asteroid threat estimate is right mostly by accident, based on the assumption of one massive impact every 100 million years.
The perception that the risk from space has been overstated comes at a bad time for near-Earth-asteroid studies. In England, planned increases in spending on detecting nearby asteroids seems secure but somewhat slowed. In mid-December, NASA briefly threatened to shut down research on near-Earth objects at the massive Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, before backing down when complaints rolled in. And planned budget cuts threaten the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., a center for studying objects in our solar system.
Despite these potential setbacks, other signs of progress in the field exist. After a few false starts, the system for alerting the public to possibly dangerous asteroids appears to be working. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, astronomers first flagged asteroid 2001 VK5 as a possible troublemaker, then downgraded it to harmless after further analysis, without startling the public.
Earlier this year, the spectacular landing of NASA's NEAR-Shoemaker space probe on the asteroid Eros brought public awareness of the proximity of asteroids to a high level.
At the recent American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, studies on Eros, a nearby asteroid that never crosses Earth's orbit, tackled the question of main-belt asteroids swooping into our neighborhood. At the meeting, William Bottke of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., suggested the potato-shaped asteroid slipped out of the main belt only 16 million years ago. Determining how often asteroids zip into Earth's neighborhood is important, says astronomers, in understanding the odds of one catastrophically smacking into our planet.
Since Sept. 11, "I think that we now better understand what it means to have an unthinkable disaster. In a sense, it verifies the notion that we should protect ourselves against disasters to the extent we can," says astronomer Richard Binzel of MIT.
Protests over Arecibo's called-off closing and critical reaction to alternate estimates of the risk from space, Binzel says, reflect some frustration among scientists who have long sought support to understand the asteroids they've discovered, not merely list them.
And the outlook isn't great. "The current budget for the Near-Earth Objects Observations program faces some especially difficult choices," writes Colleen Hartman, who heads solar system exploration at NASA, in a recent letter sent to the space community. In a protest of the initial Arecibo facility shutdown, the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group, calls such efforts vital, saying, "A Near-Earth Object that struck the Earth 65 million years ago triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs and most species then flourishing. Another such object could come our way at any time." © Copyright 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.