The Hon John Howard, MP, Prime Minister of Australia
The Hon Peter McGauran, MP, Minister for Science
The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson, MP, Minister for Education, Science and Training
Senator the Hon Robert Hill, Minister for Defence
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP, Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Australia's contribution to Spaceguard
Spaceguard is the name given to an international effort to search the skies for asteroids that might collide with the Earth. The name was coined by Sir Arthur C Clarke in a 1973 novel that described how mankind set up an asteroid detection and defence network after a large asteroid struck Italy and devastated southern Europe. Since the novel was written the risks and grave consequences of asteroid impacts have been recognised and studied. Scientists around the globe are now working to ensure that Clarke's scenario of a sudden, deadly impact does not occur.
The United States is the main contributor to the search effort, with several telescopes dedicated to Spaceguard. Japan recently constructed a new telescope facility for Spaceguard work and Europe is in the process of setting up search telescopes and the vital support systems to analyse the data from the searches.
Rob McNaught from Siding Spring in New South Wales runs the only professional asteroid tracking project in the southern hemisphere. This operation is funded mostly by the United States and is associated with the Australian National University. It was set up in recognition of the need for Spaceguard telescopes in the southern hemisphere. Gordon Garradd, an astronomer from Loomberah in New South Wales, receives some funds from NASA for critical southern hemisphere follow-up observations using a home-made telescope.
However, a much greater search effort, including a larger telescope, is needed to detect asteroids that pass through southern skies. It would cost several million dollars to set up a suitable facility in Australia but some of this might be covered by contributions of equipment from the USA. Operational costs should be less than $1 million per year. This is a highly cost effective investment in the prevention of loss of life and severe economic damage from asteroid impacts.
McNaught and Garradd were previously in a team of Australian astronomers, led by Dr Duncan Steel, who searched for asteroids between the late 1980s and 1996. They found about one third of new threatening asteroids discovered during this period, demonstrating Australian expertise and the importance of searching southern skies. Australian government funding for the project was withdrawn in 1996 and the team disbanded.
The United Nations and the OECD have recognised the potential hazard to our civilisation from asteroid impacts. This month the OECD is looking at the issue as part of its Global Science Forum and recently asked developed nations to indicate their plans to contribute to the Spaceguard effort.
A major global Spaceguard effort could provide decades of warning prior to an impact. This would be sufficient time to refine the space technology needed to nudge a threatening asteroid into a harmless orbit, or to evacuate the predicted impact area. Without Spaceguard there would be too little warning to prevent a disaster. This is clearly demonstrated by the recent close approach of a 300m wide asteroid. It was discovered only a few days before it passed by the Earth and, had it been on a collision course, there is little that could have been done to prevent possibly millions of casualties when an area the size of Tasmania would have been devastated.
We note that a spokesperson for Science Minister Peter McGuaran said that the Government would look into renewing the funding of a dedicated Australian Spaceguard programme (The Age, 9th January). We welcome this reassessment of the issue and look forward to Australia rejoining the international effort to deal with the asteroid threat.
Paul Abell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA
Olga T. Aksenova, Blagoveschensk State University, Russia
Gennady V. Andreev, Astronomical Observatory of Tomsk State University, Russia
John Anfinogenov, Tunguska Preserver, Siberia, Russia
Yana Anfinogenova, Siberian State Midical University, Russia
David Asher, Bisei Spaceguard Center, Japan
Mark Bailey, Armagh Observatory, UK
Mike Baillie, Queen's University, Belfast, N. Ireland
Michael J Barlow, University College London, UK
Andrea Boattini, IAS, Area Ricerca CNR Tor Vergata, Italy
Jiri Borovicka, Astronomical Institute, Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic
Mark Boslough, Sandia National Laboratories, USA
Peter Brown, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Western Ontario, Canada
Larisa Budaeva, Tomsk State University, Siberia, Russia
Andrea Carusi, IAS, Area Ricerca CNR Tor Vergata, Italy
Silvano Casulli, Colleverde di Guidonia Observatory, Italy
Clark R. Chapman, Southwest Research Institute, USA
Andrew Cheng, Applied Physics Laboratory, USA
Paul Davies, Australian Centre for Astrobiology, Macquarie University, Australia
Ann Druyan, CEO, Cosmos Studios, USA
Alan Fitzsimmons, Queen's University Belfast, UK
Giuseppe Forti, Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Firenze, Italy
Luigi Foschini, Istituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica, Italy
Lou Friedman, The Planetary Society, USA
Michael J. Gaffey, Space Studies, University of North Dakota, USA
Jon Giorgini, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA
Valentina Gorbatenko, Tomsk Polytechnic University, Russia
Vic Gostin, Dept.Geology & Geophysics, University of Adelaide, Australia
Tom Gehrels, The University of Arizona, USA
Ian Griffin, Space Telescope Science Institute, USA
Valentin Grigore, The Romanian Society for Meteors and Astronomy (SARM), Romania
Christian Gritzner, Dresden University of Technology, Germany
Gerhard J. Hahn, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Germany
Peter Haines, University of Tasmania, Australia
Eleanor Helin, NEAT Program, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA
Nigel Holloway, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority & Spaceguard UK
Ola Karlsson, UDAS Program, Uppsala Astronomical Observatory, Sweden
Colin Keay, The University of Newcastle, Australia Bob Kobres, University of Georgia, USA
Natal'ya V.Kolesnikova, Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia
Leif Kahl Kristensen, Institute of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus, Denmark
Karl S. Kruszelnicki, School of Physics, The University of Sydney, Australia
Evgeniy M. Kolesnikov, Moscow State University, Russia
Korado Korlevic, Visnjan Observatory - Spaceguard HR, Croatia
Eugeny Kovrigin, Tomsk State University, Siberia, Russia
Richard Kowalski - Quail Hollow Observatory, USA
Yurij Krugly, Astronomical Observatory of Kharkiv National University, Ukraine
David H. Levy, Jarnac Observatory, USA
Dmitrij Lupishko, Kharkiv National University, Ukraine
Terry Mahoney, Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, Spain
Brian Marsden, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA
Bruce Mackenzie, National Space Society, USA
Ilan Manulis, The Israeli Astronomical Association, Israel
Austin Mardon, Antarctic Institute of Canada
Jean-Luc Margot, California Institute of Technology, USA
Gianluca Masi, Bellatrix Observatory, Italy
Alain Maury, CNRS, France
John McFarland, Armagh Observatory, UK
Natalya Minkova, Tomsk State University, Russia
Joe Montani The University of Arizona, USA
Darrel Moon, Oxnard College, California, USA
Thomas G. Mueller, Max- Planck-Institut, Garching, Germany
Bill Napier, Armagh Observatory, UK
Chernykh Nikolaj, Crimean Astrophysical Observatory, Crimea, Ukraine
Steve Ostro, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA
Trevor Palmer, Nottingham Trent University, UK
Benny Peiser, Liverpool John Moores University, UK
Joaquin Perez, Universidad de Alcala, Spain
Paul Roche, University of Glamorgan, UK
Maria Eugenia Sansaturio, University of Valladolid, Spain
Lutz D. Schmadel, Astronomisches Rechen-Institut Heidelberg, Germany
Hans Scholl, Observatoire de la Cote d'Azur, France
Vladimir A. Shefer, Astronomical Observatory, Tomsk State University, Russia
Carolyn Shoemaker, Lowell Observatory, USA
Vadim A. Simonenko, Space Shield Foundation, Russia
S Fred Singer, University of Virginia, USA
Giovanni Sostero, Remanzacco observatory, Italy
Reiner M. Stoss, Starkenburg Observatory, Germany
Jay Tate, International Spaceguard Information Centre, UK
Luciano Tesi, Osservatorio di San Marcello Pistoiese, Italy
Jana Ticha, Klet Observatory, Czech Republic
Josep M. Trigo-Rodriguez , University Jaume, Spain
Roy A. Tucker, Goodricke-Pigott Observatory, Arizona, USA
Harry Varvoglis, Department of Physics, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
Gerrit L. Verschuur, University of Memphis, USA
Fiona Vincent, University of St.Andrews, Scotland, UK
Dejan Vinkovic, University of Kentucky, USA
Vladimir Vorobyov, Pomor State University n.a. M.V. Lomonosov, Russia
Chandra Wickramasinghe, Cardiff University, Wales, UK
Gareth Williams, Minor Planet Center, Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory, USA
Don Yeomans, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA
Oleg M. Zaporozhets, Kamchatka State University, Russia
Krzysztof Ziolkowski, Space Research Centre, Warsaw, Poland
WORLD'S ASTEROID HUNTERS MAKE POLITICAL PLEA TO SAVE EARTH
From Space.com, 1 February 2002
By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
Prompted by a close brush between Earth and an asteroid in early January, scores of top researchers who often don't see eye-to-eye have made a joint political plea for help in saving the planet.
The fear: a cosmic sucker punch from southern skies that could destroy civilization.
The remedy: a new multi-million dollar telescope in Australia.
While a coordinated asteroid search program is underway in the Northern Hemisphere, none exists south of the equator, creating a blind spot that equals nearly a third of the heavens. So 91 international astronomers and prominent space activists -- including a who's who of asteroid experts -- sent a letter asking the Australian government to rejoin the asteroid search seven years after the country dropped out.
The letter, provided to SPACE.com before it was mailed Tuesday, commends the Australians for a recent official comment that the government would look into renewed funding for Spaceguard, an international group that promotes asteroid detection programs.
The letter prods Australia to action, suggesting the country build a telescope. It makes no bones about the stakes involved.
"A major global Spaceguard effort could provide decades of warning prior to an impact," the letter states. "This would be sufficient time to refine the space technology needed to nudge a threatening asteroid into a harmless orbit, or to evacuate the predicted impact area. Without Spaceguard there would be too little warning to prevent a disaster."
The signatories include scientists from NASA and several universities and institutions in America, Europe, Russia and Australia. The voices range widely, from renowned asteroid hunter Carolyn Shoemaker, of the Lowell Observatory, to Ann Druyan, wife of the late Carl Sagan.
Several of the scientists who signed the letter have, from time-to-time, argued over how to conduct the asteroid hunt -- both scientifically and politically. One camp favors focusing on the largest asteroids, which could cause global destruction. Another prefers plans that include smaller rocks that might wipe out a city and, due to sheer numbers, present a greater statistical risk of impact.
The scientists also sometimes disagree over how their findings should be presented, or not presented, to the public. Some have called for full disclosure at times. Others have suggested a more guarded release of information only after public risk, or lack of it, has been well established.
One thing they all agree on, however, is that the threat is real.
The odds of an asteroid larger than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) hitting Earth sometime in the next century are typically put at 1-in-5,000. Such an impact could destroy a country, would likely cause some species to go extinct, and might blot out the Sun long enough to ruin farming and send humans into a Dark Ages existence, analysts say. Past impacts are recorded in a handful of craters that have not fully eroded.
Smaller events occur as often as once every 100 years and can cause local or regional damage. A comet or asteroid exploded just above the surface of Siberia in 1908, leveling thousands of acres of unpopulated forest.
Don Yeomans of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is among four scientists there who signed the letter. JPL oversees NASA's asteroid search efforts. In a telephone interview, Yeomans agreed it is unusual for so many of his colleagues to band together on a single political statement.
He added, though, that it was not the first time scientists have tried to arm-twist governments into recognizing the dangers of asteroids and taking action. A similar letter, signed by far fewer researchers, was once sent to the Canadian government, he said. And scientists have regularly prodded the British government to get involved, leading to a recent announcement to create a UK center for asteroid study.
Yeomans explained why Australia is the preferred location, rather than some other country south of the equator. "Australia already has a nucleus of [research] groups that could easily be put online," Yeomans said. "They are already there, they have the equipment available, they have the interest." In fact, a minor search program does exist in Australia, funded by U.S. institutions, but it is seen as inadequate.
The letter, mailed from Spaceguard UK, points out that the United States bears the brunt of the burden in looking for asteroids. NASA has a congressional mandate to catalogue all asteroids that roam in the vicinity of Earth's orbit and are at least 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) wide.
While no asteroid is known to be on a collision course with Earth, it is these large Near Earth Objects, or NEOs, that generate the most concern among some researchers because, they say, an impact by one could have global consequences. Over time, their orbits are altered by the gravity of the Sun and planets. Only about half of these large NEOs have been found, according to the most widely accepted estimates. Some 500 or so are thought to await detection.
Meanwhile, about 30 percent of the sky has never been surveyed, Yeomans said. Pointing to an additional need for a southern telescope, he said, is that when asteroids are discovered in northern skies, they often need to be studied later from the south before their exact paths can be determined. "It's not that we'll miss them forever, it's just that it will take a lot longer," he said. He said a full-fledged search program Down Under "would definitely help" achieve NASA's goal for 2008.
Large asteroids could be found with an existing, 1-meter (3-foot) Australian telescope that was used for the purpose through 1996. This solution would require no initial investment. Less than $1 million would be needed annually to operate the telescope and pay astronomers, researchers say.
But the thrust of the letter is to encourage the Australians to build a new, larger telescope that would also find small asteroids. Yeomans notes, however, that larger telescopes, while they can spot small asteroids, cover a smaller region of the sky and so are less effective in finding bigger asteroids.
Construction of a new telescope would run about $7 million for a 2-meter telescope and roughly $21 million for a 3- meter telescope, the ultimate Spaceguard goal, according to Benny Peiser, a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University who is one of the initial authors of the letter."This is a highly cost effective investment in the prevention of loss of life and severe economic damage from asteroid impacts," the letter states.
NASA or other U.S. institutions might cover some of the costs, researchers said. Other funding might materialize.
"If Australia were to rejoin Spaceguard, there potentially is a good chance that the UK and other European partners might become interested in a joint project," Peiser said.
The story behind the letter
The original idea for the plea dates back several years, said Michael Paine, a volunteer with Planetary Society in Australia and a Spaceguard proponent who helped draft the letter.
But a natural impetus came on Jan. 7, when an asteroid the size of three football fields (300 meters wide) passed relatively close to Earth, just twice the distance to the Moon. The rock, named 2001 YB5, was first seen in December -- nowhere near enough time to mount a space mission to deflect it.
"Had it been on a collision course, there is little that could have been done to prevent possibly millions of casualties when an area the size of Tasmania would have been devastated," the signatories agree. Tasmania is about the size of Ohio.
A similar asteroid flyby occurred last October, when a rock thought to be between 50 and 100 meters in diameter zoomed by Earth at a similar distance. The object, big enough to destroy a city, was first detected just two days prior. The more recent flyby of 2001 YB5 got wide coverage in Australia, however, and a spokesperson for Science Minister Peter McGuaran said the Government would look into renewing the funding of a dedicated Australian Spaceguard program. (McGuaran made a similar statement in 1997, according to press reports from the time.)
Three researchers -- Paine, Peiser, and Australian author and physicist Paul Davies -- jumped on the recent comment and drafted the letter beginning Jan. 10, then sought the signatures Copyright 2002, Space.com
AUSTRALIA SCIENCE MINISTER REPLIES
"I'm not going to be spooked or panicked into spending scarce research dollars on a fruitless attempt to predict the next asteroid. We spend about $18 million a year on astronomy and that's a significant investment by Australia, particularly by world-wide standards. I wouldn't like to divert up to five or more percent of that budget towards a fruitless, unnecessary, self-indulgent exercise. I'm just not convinced that the hype and alarm and even fear-mongering is enough to justify an instant investment."
--Peter McGauran, Australian Minister for Science, 17 March 2002