CCNet 1/2003 -  7 January 2003

** Wishing all CCNet readers a Happy New Year **

"As an astrophysicist, I admit that few issues in my trade could be
considered pressing. However, there is one aspect of my work that could
have deadly consequences -- or, more precisely, will have deadly
consequences if it is ignored. Here is where heaven and Earth meet: in the
long-run certainty that people will die from the effects of an asteroid,
large or small, hitting the planet."
-- Piet Hut, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., 4
January 2002

"Two years ago, the Government set up a task force to decide what
they should do about countering the danger from Near Earth Objects
(NEOs). The group recommended a sophisticated, international network
of telescopes. What we got was an information centre in Leicester - more
Blake's Seven than Deep Impact."
-- The Express, 1 January 2002

    Sify News, 7 January 2002

    Liverpool John Moores University News, December 2002

    Andrew Yee <>

    BBC, 6 January 2002

    UPI Science News, 5 January 2002

    Associated Press, 5 January 2003

    Vishnu Reddy <>

    National Geographic News, 19 December 2002

    The Australian, 6 January 2002

     NASA Science News, 6 January 2003

     Anatoly V. Zaitsev <>

     The Express, (London), 31 December 2002

    The New York Times, 4 January 2002


>From Sify News, 7 January 2002
Moscow, 6 January 2002

A 60-meter asteroid, Number 2002 AA29, which might become a small moon for
the Earth in future, will fly by our planet on the day of Orthodox Christmas
Tuesday, researchers at the Astronomy Institute under the Russian Academy of
Sciences have said.

Orthodox Christmas is celebrated by Christians of Russian and Serbian
Churches and the monks of Mount Athos in Greece who follow the old Julian

Astronomers will watch this 'small planet' through a telescope because it is
of the 12-20th class of stellar magnitude, RIA Novosti quoted Sergei
Barabanov, a researcher at the institute, as saying yesterday.

The naked eye can see a celestial body of only up to 6th stellar magnitude,
he said.

Foreign astrophysicists believe that by the year 2600, this asteroid, whose
orbit will never intersect with the Earth's, may approach the Earth so
closely that under the impact of terrestrial gravity it will be 'caught' by
our planet and become a 'small Moon'.

Eleven 'small bodies' will fly by the Earth this January, Barabanov said,
adding that on January 1 and 4 two asteroids, dozens of meters in size, flew
by it.


>From Liverpool John Moores University News, December 2002

Experts from JMU's Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) are planning to
unravel the mysteries of the Universe through a unique astronomy centre to
be built on the banks of the River Mersey.
The Government Office North West has approved the crucial part of a package
of funding totalling £8 million for the International Space and Astronomy
Centre (IASC), a project initiated by Mersey Ferries with its parent
Merseytravel and JMU. It now awaits a final green light from the Department
of Culture, Media and Sport in London.

The Centre will create a major new space-themed educational attraction for
all the family. It is predicted to become one of the finest tourist
attractions in Europe and will be a centrepiece of regeneration on the
Wirral waterfront.

ARI's National Schools' Observatory will also be based in the Centre,
providing schoolchildren with the opportunity to learn about science using
technology previously reserved for professional astronomers. The JMU
Liverpool telescope, currently being assembled on La Palma, will act as a
central resource for young astronomers.

 "This is fantastic news. It looks like we'll have lift-off in the very near
future," said Professor Mike Bode, Head of ARI. "Our expertise will provide
the public the very latest information surrounding new discoveries and
developments in the field of astronomy and space science."

The exhibits within the IASC will use special visual effects, interactive
tools, virtual reality 3D experiences and theatrical presentations. The
centre will include a replica of Newton's laboratory and journeys through
space and time. There will also be a series of special events held
throughout the year, such as 'star-gazers' evenings and public talks.

ARI's Mike Simcoe, Project Manager (National Schools' Observatory) said that
some of the exhibits and information would be directly linked to the
National Curriculum. "We'll be taking people on a journey of discovery," he
said. "From Mars to beyond the Milky Way, we aim to fire the enthusiasm of
young people by providing a stimulating learning environment outside of the

Building work is due to start in January with the Centre's doors eventually
opening in 2004.


>From Andrew Yee <>

ESA Science News

06 Jan 2003

Announcement of Rosetta launch delay

The launch date for Rosetta, ESA's mission to a comet, has been delayed by a
few days. The inquiry board appointed by Arianespace, the European Space
Agency, and CNES (France's National Space Agency) to investigate the anomaly
observed during Flight 157 on 11 December 2002 is continuing to examing the
potential impact on preparations for the forthcoming Rosetta mission.

The inquiry board will submit its final report to Arianespace on Monday 6
January 2003. Until then, all irreversible operations involved in the
Rosetta launch have been suspended. This will result in a launch
postponement of several days beyond the targeted date of Sunday 12 January
2003. A new launch date will be announced on Saturday 11 January 2003.


* More about Rosetta

[ ]
Artist's impression of the Rosetta orbiter and lander
approaching Comet Wirtanen.


>From BBC, 6 January 2002
By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online science reporter 
European space officials are preparing back-up plans in case a flagship
mission has to be postponed, BBC News Online has learned.

The £600m Rosetta mission to orbit and land on a comet faces a delay of
weeks or even months following a failed rocket launch in December.

Europe's new super rocket, the Ariane 5-ESCA, exploded over the Atlantic on
its maiden flight, casting a shadow on the daring project.

An independent investigation into the loss is due to report on Monday.

Meanwhile, Arianespace, the company that operates Europe's rockets from the
Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, has suspended flight preparations.

No compromise

Rosetta must leave Earth by the end of January if it is to reach its
destination, comet Wirtanen, an icy space rock which orbits the planet

It had been scheduled to launch on 12 January but has been delayed by a few
days at least.

Scientists fear it could miss its launch window altogether, forcing a delay
of months or even years, and no second chance to visit comet Wirtanen.

Professor David Southwood, director of science at the European Space Agency,
said he was confident that another target comet could be found, in the worst
case scenario.

This would mean additional costs and a lengthy delay to ensure the science
of the original mission was not compromised.

He told BBC News Online: "Although it will cost us money we're not about to
take any risk on the best part of a billion euros investment on the grounds
of not risking another few tens of millions."

New targets

Professor Southwood said a number of new comets have been discovered in
recent years that are worthy of scientific scrutiny.

"In terms of finding a potential new target and being able to do everything
that the mission requires, I'm fairly confident I will be able to find a new
target," he said.

"My concern will be to try to make sure we balance the additional
expenditure of money against making sure that we get the science we were
going to get."

He said he was hopeful that the launch would go ahead as planned in January.

Engineers hope that the fault can be traced to new components in the super

This would clear Rosetta to fly on the standard version of the rocket.
Arianespace said a new launch date for Rosetta would be announced on January

A media conference about the mission planned by British scientists on Monday
has been postponed.

Copyright 2002, BBC


>From UPI Science News, 5 January 2002

By Irene Brown
>From the Science & Technology Desk

>From the jungles of Kourou, French Guiana, to the surface of a comet -- that
is the journey laid out for a robot probe called Rosetta, which scientists
hope will be a key to decoding the early solar system.

Rosetta's name recalls the efforts by French linguist Jean-François
Champollion, who studied the etched translations on the Rosetta Stone and
helped to unlock the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs for modern

"Comets are thought to have provided the waters on Earth and the organics,
said Alan Stern with the Southwest Research Institute of Boulder, Colo., and
a collaborator on the European-led mission. "We're all made from comet stuff
-- that's the going paradigm and whether it's right or wrong we'll determine
by making a series of studies of comets."

Rosetta's journey will be long and arduous. Scheduled to be hoisted into
orbit aboard a heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket in mid-January, the three-ton
spacecraft will fly first to Mars and then back to Earth, using
gravitational momentum from the planets to slingshot itself farther into
space. After close encounter with asteroid Otawara in 2006, another swing
around Earth and a quick look at asteroid Siwa in 2008, Rosetta will reach
its final destination: Comet Wirtanen, a celestial snowball less than
three-quarters of a mile in diameter that contains leftovers from the
creation of the solar system.

"It's material from an almost perfect morgue," said Stern.

The primordial sample will not be an easy catch. By the time Rosetta catches
up with Wirtanen, in November 2011, it will be nearly as far away from the
sun as Jupiter and barreling toward the inner solar system at about 84,000
mph, or 23 miles per second.

After braking to put itself into orbit, Rosetta will spend two years mapping
the comet's surface and using a sophisticated array of remote sensing tools
to analyze dust and vapors. For its closing act, Rosetta will hover about a
half-mile above the comet and release a lander. As to what it might find,
scientists said they have no idea what to expect.

"No one has ever tried to land on a comet before," said project scientist
Gerhard Schwehm. "We don't know anything about how rough the surface is. It
could be covered with fluffy snow like the Alps or it could be rocks and

One thing is certain, he added, "that it will not be smooth and flat like a
parking lot."

The lander is designed to stay upright on a slope of up to about 30 degrees.
Upon touchdown, a harpoon will be fired to anchor the probe and keep it from
bouncing -- gravity on the comet is practically nonexistent. The lander's
legs then will screw themselves down into the surface to secure the craft in

After that, Rosetta's science team will be working fast. With about 60 hours
of battery power and an unknown amount of solar power, the lander will work
through a series of experiments to learn about the comet's composition,
including experiments that might help determine if comets did indeed seed
life on Earth.

"We're really just little babies crawling around with no real views of the
world," said Stern. "Anything we learn will take us a long way."

Copyright © 2001-2003 United Press International


>From Associated Press, 5 January 2003

AP Science Writer

SEATTLE (AP) In a space game of ``catch me if you can,'' a small asteroid
shares the same orbit with Earth sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, but
never quite touching as the two race around the sun, astronomers say.

``This is one of the most interesting orbits for an asteroid we have ever
seen,'' said Paul Chodas, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher who studies
asteroids and who first plotted the bizarre motion of the space rock.

The asteroid, called 2002 AA29, is in a precise circular orbit that follows
the same general path as the Earth around the sun. But, like a mouse teasing
a cat, the asteroid sometimes speeds up and precedes the Earth and then
later slows to drop into a follow-the-leader approach.

But never will the two meet, Chodas says.

On Wednesday, the asteroid makes its closest approach to the Earth in almost
a century, moving within 3.7 million miles.

``For a number of decades the asteroid has been going a little slower than
the Earth and the Earth has been catching up,'' Chodas said in a telephone
interview. ``This week it makes its closest approach in 95 years.''

Chodas said that during the close approach, the Earth's gravity will cause
the asteroid to swing into a slightly lower orbit, which will make it move
faster than the Earth.

The asteroid will continue moving ahead until, in 95 years, it approaches
the Earth from behind. Gravity then will force the asteroid into a higher,
slower orbit and the Earth will move ahead. In another 95 years, the Earth
approaches from behind and the cycle is repeated.

``There's no possibility that this asteroid could hit Earth because Earth's
gravity rebuffs its periodic advances and keeps it at bay,'' said Don
Yeomans, head of a NASA asteroid program at JPL, in a statement. ``The
asteroid and Earth take turns sneaking up on each other, but they never get
too close.''

A computer simulation suggests that in about 600 years, the pattern will
change slightly.

Chodas said the asteroid will loop about the Earth, but never will become a
true satellite that actually orbits the planet. After about 40 years, it
will drop back into its earlier pattern and the cat-and-mouse game will
continue for many more centuries.

The asteroid is only about 200 feet across, too small to be easily seen. It
was discovered last year by an Air Force telescope that is part of a NASA
program to find and plot asteroids that orbit near the Earth.

Even if 2002 AA29 did hit the Earth it would not cause planetwide
destruction as did the 6-mile-wide asteroid that hit and killed the
dinosaurs some 23 million years ago.

Instead, said Chodas, the small asteroid would gouge out a crater about
three-quarters of a mile across, similar to the Barringer meteor crater in

Asteroid observations are among the 1,000 studies to be presented this week
at the national meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

On the Net:
American Astronomical Society:
Asteroid observations:

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.


>From Vishnu Reddy <>

Dear sir,

I hope CCNet readers will find this interesting.

clear skies
Vishnu Vardhan

Indian President for efforts to destroy asteroid 1950DA

Bangalore, Jan. 4: (PTI) President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on Saturday called for
a combined global effort to deflect or destroy asteroid 1950DA which has the
probability of impacting the earth one in 300 on March 16 in the year 2880.
"The impact probability calculations indicate a serious condition of one in
300," Mr Kalam told a Space Summit organised as part of 90th session of
Indian Science Congress here.

"In such a crucial condition, we should aim to deflect or destroy this
asteroid with technology available with mankind," Mr Kalam stressed. The
problem belongs to space technology community, the President said adding it
needs political support and international cooperation to destroy such
asteroids. The Space community, he said, has to keep monitoring the dynamics
of all potentially dangerous asteroids.

Note: Currently India has no active asteroid programme, though a lot of
claims and promises have been made by professionals and politicians.


National Geographic News, 19 December 2002
Astronomers have received a holiday bonanza in the form of the arrival of a
previously unknown comet that has entered our part of the solar system.
The comet was discovered by a Japanese amateur astronomer, Tetuo Kudo, early
on the morning of December 14, said Clay Sherrod, an astronomer with the
Arkansas Sky laboratory.

"In mid- to late-January the comet will be favorably placed for early risers
in the northern hemisphere and will probably be visible to the naked eye, at
least toward the end of that month," Sherrod said. "Certainly binoculars
will aid in spotting the comet and exposing any tail that it might show."

Named Kudo-Fujikawa (and officially designated C/2002 X5), the comet is
moving east-southeast through the constellation Hercules.

Halley's comet orbits the Earth every 76 years, and its next scheduled
visitation is in 2061. Astronomers hope that the newly discovered comet,
C/2002 X5 Kudo-Fujikawa, will provide an equally impressive show for viewers
here on Earth.

"The comet is a swift-moving object and currently is easily visible in the
northeastern skies during pre-dawn hours, showing a pretty distinct tail and
large coma (head or halo, caused by the emanation of gases and other
materials as the comet warms up on its approach to the sun). The tail
appears to be slightly less than one-half degree and several spikes in this
tail have been recorded (on December 15) by imagers in New Mexico," Sherrod

The jury is still out regarding just what kind of show Kudo-Fujikawa would
provide Earth-based viewers when it is closest to the sun, but there is a
prospect that it would be a "textbook comet," Sherrod said. "However, the
visibility during its greatest brilliance...will be greatly hampered because
of the comet's angle of approach to the sun and the Earth-sun-comet
positioning during that period."

Towards the end of January, the comet will be approaching the sun and
swinging behind it from Earth's vantage point, thus getting lower and lower
each successive morning into early February.

"In February the comet will be more favorably placed for observers in the
southern hemisphere, and there are some estimates that suggest that the
comet could attain a brightness equal to the bright planet Venus (a
magnitude of less than 4)," Sherrod said.

Magnitude is a measure of brightness used by astronomers. The lower the
magnitude value of an object, the brighter that object is.Objects that shine
with a magnitude of less than 6 are usually visible with the naked eye.
Kudo-Fujikawa is currently being seen at a magnitude of between 7 and 8.

Much of what Earth will be able to see of Kudo-Fujikawa is contingent on the
activity that occurs when it is closest to its pass by the sun (perihelion)
on January 28, 2003, Sherrod said. At that point it will be only 16 million
miles (25 million kilometers) from the sun. The average distance of the
Earth from the sun is 93 million miles (150 million kilometers).

"The retrograde orbit (meaning the comet is coming in at an opposite
direction in relation to the orbits of the primary planets) of this comet
and its close pass from the sun at that time have suggested to many, myself
included, that the comet might potentially break up from solar radiation and
solar wind. If this does indeed occur, then we might expect more volatile
activity from this object than if it passes perihelion totally intact and

"Now, if this does happen, then we might expect an incredible comet to be
visible as the inner, more volatile and rare gases are exposed to solar
radiation," Sherrod said.

Copyright 2002, National Geographic


>From The Australian, 6 January 2002,5744,5803067%255E1702,00.html

A MELBOURNE geologist believes he's put a dent in NASA's plans to send an
expedition to Mars to search for life.

University of Melbourne planetary scientist Nick Hoffman has identified
gully and channel development near the polar regions of Mars from images
taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

However, contrary to popular scientific opinion, Dr Hoffmann said the flow
was most likely frozen carbon dioxide, not liquid water.

Dr Hoffman said the area he had monitored recorded temperatures as low as
minus 130 degrees centigrade, a temperature water could not flow at.

"These flows cannot possibly be water," Dr Hoffman told AAP.

He said his findings, published in the latest edition of the journal
Astrobiology, would have serious impacts on the ongoing search for life on

His research presents evidence that substances other than water can flow on
Mars and that water is probably the least likely substance to do so.

"Without water we cannot have life," Dr Hoffman said. "Despite recent
reports of more and more ice on the red planet, NASA has yet to find liquid

Dr Hoffman, who has been studying Mars for about five years, said his
research had been an uphill battle, but he had made significant progress
with carbon dioxide models.

"People at NASA don't want to hear that there's no water on Mars," he said.

"They want it to be `Mars is a wet planet, we'll just go there and dig up
some fossils and bring them back'.

"If these findings are generally accepted it will impact on NASA's mission.
They'll no longer focus on the gullies, they'll have to find somewhere

Dr Hoffman said he was particularly proud that the discovery had been made
by Australian researchers working on a shoestring budget.

Copyright 2002, The Australian


>From NASA Science News, 6 January 2003

A new NASA mission will soon leave Earth to study the remains of some
uncomfortably close supernova explosions.
January 6, 2003: Australopithecus squinted at the blue African sky. He had
never seen a star in broad daylight before, but he could see one today.
White. Piercing. Not as bright as the Sun, yet much more than a full moon.
Was it dangerous? He stared for a long time, puzzled, but nothing happened,
and after a while he strode across the savanna unconcerned.

Millions of years later, we know better.

"That star was a supernova, one of many that exploded in our part of the
galaxy during the past 10 million years," says astronomer Mark Hurwitz of
the University of California-Berkeley.

Supernovas near Earth are rare today, but during the Pliocene era of
Australopithecus supernovas happened more often. Their source was an
interstellar cloud called "Sco-Cen" that was slowly gliding by the solar
system. Within it, dense knots coalesced to form short-lived massive stars,
which exploded like popcorn.

Researchers estimate (with considerable uncertainty) that a supernova less
than 25 light years away would extinguish much of the life on Earth. The
blast needn't incinerate our planet. All it would take is enough cosmic rays
to damage the ozone layer and let through lethal doses of ultraviolet (UV)
radiation. Our ancestors survived the Pliocene blasts only because the
supernovas weren't quite so close.

We know because we can still see the cloud today. It's 450 light years from
Earth and receding in the direction of the constellations Scorpius and
Centaurus (hence the cloud's name, "Sco-Cen"). Astronomer Jesús
Maíz-Apellániz of Johns Hopkins University recently backtracked Sco-Cen's
motion and measured its closest approach: 130 light years away about 5
million years ago.

Sco-Cen was still nearby only two million years ago when many plankton,
mollusks, and other UV-sensitive marine creatures on Earth mysteriously
died. Paleontologists mark it as the transition between the Pliocene and
Pleistocene epochs. Around the same time, according to German scientists who
have examined deep-sea sediments from the Pliocene era, Earth was peppered
with Fe60, an isotope produced by supernova explosions.


No one knows. It's a puzzle researchers are still piecing together.

Reconstructing the history of near-Earth supernovas is difficult because old
supernovas are elusive. Their glowing shells fade to invisibility in not
much more than a million years. Neutron stars, the collapsed cores of
supernova progenitors, last longer, but they are flung across the galaxy by
asymmetries in the explosion. Unusual isotopes of iron, like the ones that
coincide with the marine extinction, are difficult to find buried under
millions of years of sediments.

There is, however, one obvious relic: "All those explosions blew an enormous
bubble in the interstellar medium," says Hurwitz, "and we're inside it."

Astronomers call it "the Local Bubble." It's peanut-shaped, about 300 light
years long, and filled with almost nothing. Gas inside the bubble is very
thin (0.001 atoms per cubic centimeter) and very hot (a million
degrees)--that's 1000 times less dense and 100 to 100,000 times hotter than
ordinary interstellar material.

The Local Bubble was discovered gradually in the 1970's and 1980's. Optical
and radio astronomers looked carefully for interstellar gas in our part of
the galaxy, but couldn't find much in Earth's neighborhood. Furthermore,
there seemed to be a pileup of gas--like the shell of a bubble--about 150
light years away. Meanwhile, x-ray astronomers were getting their first look
at the sky using orbiting satellites, which revealed a million-degree x-ray
glow coming from all directions. "We eventually realized that the solar
system was inside a hot, vacuous bubble," says Hurwitz.

Perhaps as soon as this week, NASA plans to launch a satellite--the Cosmic
Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer, or "CHIPS"--to study the Local Bubble.
"There's a great deal we don't know about it," says Hurwitz, who is the
mission's chief scientist. How old is the bubble? What is its internal
geography? How fast is it cooling? Data from CHIPS will help answer these

CHIPS will orbit Earth and peer into the bubble using an ultraviolet (UV)
telescope. "The gas in the bubble is very bright at extreme UV wavelengths
around 170 Å," explains Hurwitz. Other satellites have examined such UV
light from the bubble, but CHIPS is better. It has a spectrometer on board
with 100 channels ranging from 90 Å to 260 Å. "The spectrometer is the key,"
he says.

Like sediments in the Pacific Ocean, gas in the Local Bubble contains
supernova-produced iron. "Iron atoms in the bubble have lost many of their
electrons--knocked loose by collisions within the hot gas." CHIPS's
spectrometer will be able to detect spectral lines from iron atoms missing
8, 9, 10 and 11 electrons, respectively. By comparing the intensity of those
four spectra lines, researchers can map the temperature and density of gas
in the bubble.

"If we find a hot spot," says Hurwitz, "that might be the location of the
most recent supernova." The spectra will also tell researchers how fast the
gas is cooling and thus how old different parts of the bubble might be. A
fast-cooling knot of gas which is still hot must be pretty young, for

Exploring the internal geography of the bubble is important because what
lies inside could affect our planet's future.

During the past few million years, wispy filaments of interstellar gas have
drifted into the Local Bubble. Our solar system is immersed in one of those
filaments--the "local fluff," a relatively cool (7000 K) cloud containing
0.1 atoms per cubic centimeter. By galactic standards, the local fluff is
not very substantial. It has little effect on Earth because the solar wind
and the Sun's magnetic field are able to hold the wispy cloud at bay.

There are, however, denser clouds out there. The Sco-Cen complex, for
instance, is sending a stream of interstellar "cloudlets" in our direction.
"Some of those cloudlets might be hundreds of times denser than the local
fluff," says Priscilla Frisch, an astrophysicist at the University of
Chicago who studies the local interstellar medium. "If we ran into one, it
would compress the Sun's magnetic field and allow more cosmic rays to
penetrate the inner solar system, with unknown effects on climate and life."

CHIPS will be able to locate dense interstellar clouds by the shadows they
cast. Cool clouds are partially opaque to the bubble's UV glow, so they will
appear as darker areas in CHIPS maps. Hurwitz notes that the mission's first
sky maps will be rather coarse, with a resolution of 5o x 25o. (The bowl of
the Big Dipper, for comparison, is about 10 degrees wide.) Only the largest
clouds would appear in those. Later, if the mission is extended beyond its
first year, CHIPS will have time to produce sharper maps with 5o x 6o

Frisch has noted that Homo Sapiens arose only after the local interstellar
medium was cleared out. Fewer clouds to run into would promote a stabler
climate for our planet, she argues. So perhaps what Australopithecus saw was
a good omen, after all....

CHIPS will help us find out.



>From Anatoly V. Zaitsev <>

Dear Dr. Peiser,

I wish to express my sincere congratulation with Christmas and the New Year.
I wish you further success in your work and personal happiness. With kind
regards and best wishes to yourself and CCNet members for the New Year.

I want to inform you that we could make a small step forward to creation of
the Planetary Defense System (PDS). Recently, a number of enterprises of our
missile/space and other industries established the Planetary Defense Center.
The "Citadel" PDS Conceptual project was set as a base of its activity.

I look forward to cooperating with you and CCNet members on this project.

With best wishes,

Anatoly V. Zaitsev
Director General
of the Planetary Defense Center

IN 2002

>From The Express, (London), 31 December 2002

IT'S THE last day of the year and you may not realise it but we're all
pretty lucky to still be here. No, I don't mean you've done well to survive
10 consecutive days of Christmas hangover to large it up another day.

I'm talking serious doom, a Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse-type, Armageddon

According to those odd chaps who stroll up and down High Streets wearing
long coats and sandwich boards proclaiming: "The End is nigh", the world has
been about to go kaput for donkey's years. A few years ago there was a cult
which announced that after a certain day (in August, I think it was -
possibly Bank Holiday weekend, so at least we'd all be relaxed), the world
would be no more. They were wrong, of course; the only thing they died of
that day was embarrassment.

But the end was never more nigh than in 2002. It wasn't just the usual doom
mongers and loonies saying so; geologists, astronomers and other scientists
were taking a less fanciful view of the prospects of annihilation by meteor,
tidal wave, volcanic eruption, earthquake or a combination of all of the

You may not have taken the boffins seriously but someone else did: insurance
companies. Munich Re urged the industry to start calculating premiums to
cover meteor crashes. "Simply pointing to the presumable rarity of such
events should no longer suffice in the light of recent experience."

The term "recent" in this context is relative. A meteorite was thought to
have crashed into the earth in a remote forest in Siberia in October.

This is recent in human terms. In 1908, what was probably a small comet
flattened thousands of square miles of the Tanguska forest in Siberia; this
is very recent in cosmic terms. And before you start feeling sorry for
Siberia, consider the devastation if the comet had struck London, which is
on the same latitude and only eight time zones away. If 94 years are but a
blip in time, how infinitesimally minute is eight hours?

WHERE 16 years and 31 days falls in this scale of time measuring is hard to
say but that's exactly how nigh The End is, according to the astronomers and
computers at the Linear Observatory in New Mexico. They calculated that a
tiny (by cosmic standards) asteroid spotted last July travelling at 28km per
second would, if it maintained its current orbit, collide with the earth on
February 1, 2019.

The impact would be enough to wipe out a continent. It would leave a dent
the size of Britain in the earth's surface and the jolt would throw up
enough debris to cover the world in perpetual cloud, bringing a nuclear
winter and sparking massive tsunamis. These would build up, as they rippled
across oceans, and engulf entire land masses.

The asteroid was christened 2002 NT7, which seems a very downbeat name for a
phenomenon that reaches the earth only once in every couple of million
years, making it not so much a once in a lifetime experience as a once in
the history of mankind experience. Then, after doing some more sums, the
boffins announced they had been a little out and the asteroid would not hit
us until February 1, 2060. (Strange that they could be 41 years out on the
year, yet still be so sure of the day).

Then they tapped on their computer keyboards some more and said that er,
actually, they had got it QUITE wrong and 2002 NT7 would not be hitting
earth at all. In fact, it would miss by 32,000 miles. This is a near miss
for asteroids but it's still 32,000 miles, for goodness sake.

There was another near miss last July when an asteroid measuring 100 yards
wide missed us by 75,000 miles. What do you mean, you didn't know? Didn't
you feel the breeze as it whizzed past?

The heavens are filled with thousands of asteroids, meteorites and other
bits of space debris. The vast majority never come anywhere near the earth -
nor were ever likely to.

But instead of seeing good odds, the experts see only that our luck is bound
to run out.

If it's not space junk, it's tsunamis - waves as tall as skyscrapers,
swallowing anything in their path.

In August, scientists warned that a tidal wave would be triggered in the
Canaries by the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano.

BUT maritime experts say freak waves are not uncommon; a boat disappears in
the maw of a wall of water about once a month. Yet scientists are still not
sure about what causes them, beyond citing "unstable conditions".

Despite these almost limitless variables, we do still seem to be entering a
sci-fi kind of mood.

Doomsday scenarios once confined to potboilers are seriously debated.

Two years ago, the Government set up a task force to decide what they should
do about countering the danger from Near Earth Objects (NEOs). The group
recommended a sophisticated, international network of telescopes. What we
got was an information centre in Leicester - more Blake's Seven than Deep

Yesterday, it was announced that the police and armed forces are to be
granted special powers in the event of terrorist attack. They would be able
to quarantine large sections of major cities if they are deemed at risk from
biological weapons, and organise the evacuation of populations. Following
the attack on the Twin Towers, the University of Portsmouth is launching a
degree course in calamity management.

There is a biblical resonance in some of the natural disasters visited upon
the world this year. During the flooding of Prague and Venice, wasn't there
something in the rescue operation to save works of art that recalled the
animals going two by two into Noah's Ark, to be brought out again when it
was all over?

After suffering 22 years of manmade and natural disasters, in April 2002,
Afghanistan was struck by a plague of locusts. With Pestilence joining the
already present War, Famine and Death, that makes it a full set of the Book
of Revelations' Four Horsemen of the Apocaplyse for that benighted country.

In Sicily, Mount Etna erupted.

Already plagued by floods and earthquakes, the Catholic Italians must have
wondered if God was roaring his displeasure through the mouth of the

The first six months of 2002 brought the warmest weather ever recorded in
the northern hemisphere. Turbulence in the Pacific heralded another El Nino.
In America, 1,500 people died in heatwaves; for them, summer really must
have been like hell on earth.

And as we welcome in the New Year, our Government is more determined than
ever to send our armed forces to war against a country that may or may not
unleash germ warfare against us.

Meanwhile, Korea makes no secret of its nuclear ambitions.

So why worry about annihilation coming from outer space when it is just as
likely to come from much closer. As asteroid watchers know, a few thousand
miles is just a hair's breadth away.
Copyright 2002, The Express

>From The New York Times, 4 January 2002
At the end of every year, John Brockman, a literary agent and the publisher
of, a Web site devoted to science, poses a question to leading
scientists, writers and futurists. In 2002, he asked respondents to imagine
that they had been nominated as White House science adviser and that
President Bush had sought their answer to "What are the pressing scientific
issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can
begin to deal with them?" Here are excerpts of some of the responses.

Mapping the Planet

Over the last decade, the human genome project has laid the foundation for a
comprehensive understanding of human biology. The translation of the new
understanding into cures for human diseases will be a slow and difficult

Meanwhile, a new century has begun. It is time to begin a bold new
initiative in biology: a planetary genome sequencing project to identify all
the segments of the genomes of all the millions of species that live
together on the planet.

This would require, first, the aggressive development of new technology for
deciphering genes, comparable to the development of computer technology
during the last half century, so that the cost of sequencing genes can
continue to fall as rapidly as the cost of computing.

The goal would be to complete the sequencing of the biosphere within less
than half a century, at a cost comparable with the cost of the human genome.
This project would bring an enormous increase in understanding of the
ecology of the planet, which could then be translated into practical
measures to sustain and improve the environment while allowing continued
rapid economic development. It could also lead to the stabilization of the
atmosphere and the climate. Let this century be the century of cures for
planetary as well as human diseases.

-- Freeman Dyson, retired professor of physics, Institute for Advanced
Study, Princeton, N.J.

Professor PlayStation

While American schools are notoriously underserving their students, American
children are rushing home from class to learn how to succeed in the
alternative universes of video games. They spend dozens of hours every week
exploring virtual worlds, each with its own set of rules. Barring a complete
overhaul of our schools, makers of game systems like Nintendo and
PlayStation will continue to be the most successful institutions when it
comes to captivating young minds.

South Korea has already figured this out. More than 60 percent of Korean
homes have broadband Internet access -- and online, multiplayer role-playing
games are immensely popular. Recently, the largest Korean textbook
distributor and an independent software designer joined forces to make such
a game in which children study math, science and history.

Here in the United States, the Army is using video games to reach teenagers.
With a $7 million budget, it is building a series of games to be made
available as a free download over the Web. The first title, "America's
Army," helps players learn about war tactics by requiring them to rush
through shooter missions armed with guns and grenades.

But where are the games created to teach young Americans civilian skills?
While televisions and slide shows play a large role in classrooms, video
games are still appallingly underused. Let's match the money and effort
spent on "America's Army" to develop freely available games that teach about
math and science, history and citizenship.

--Justin Hall, electronic entertainment journalist and creator of the Web
site Justin's Links.

Little Geniuses

We need more support for the most productive, and most underfinanced,
scientific community in the country. These scientists and educators do more
to provide the basic intellectual infrastructure of the nation than any
other group. Every year they make fundamental discoveries in physics,
biology, mathematics and psychology, as well as ensure that the discoveries
of previous generations of scientists are passed on to future generations.
Yet they typically receive salaries of zero to $15,000 a year, and 16
percent are below the poverty line. Most of the science educators in this
group actually make major financial sacrifices to do their work. They
receive less federal and state support than any other part of the scientific
community -- no grants, no scholarships, no research and development

These unsung geniuses, are, of course, children under five and the many
women (and a few men) who take care of them. This may seem like a motherhood
issue; well, actually, it is a motherhood issue. But it's sound science
policy too. Give our children what all scientists need --lunch, the right
toys, a safe place to play, interesting problems to solve and someone to
talk to, and watch them invent a new world.

-- Alison Gopnik, author of "The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning
Tells Us About the Mind."

Think Small

The United States has been increasing its research efforts in a broad field
called nanotechnology. Nanotechnology -- its name comes from the Greek work
for dwarf -- refers to mechanical engineering on a molecular scale.
Technology based on molecular manufacturing will lead to computer systems a
billion times more powerful than what we have today, aerospace vehicles with
98 percent less structural mass, and medical tools that can repair tissues,
organs and cells at a microscopic level.

Molecular manufacturing will be based on molecular machine systems able to
manipulate and assemble molecular components to make larger products. If you
look in a conventional factory today, you will see electronic devices
sensing and controlling processes, but the actual work shaping, moving and
assembling parts is done by machines that, quite naturally, use moving parts
to move parts.

Yet today's research programs are not focused on developing the molecular
machine technologies essential to molecular manufacturing. Researchers often
see any machinery as somehow archaic, left over from the 19th century. Thus
interest in topics like biotechnology and microelectronics has diverted
resources into short-term efforts that are worth doing, but not at the
expense of neglecting the long-term promise of nanotechnology.

--K. Eric Drexler, founder of the Foresight Institute and author of
"Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation; Unbounding
the Future."

Science Without Secrets

My advice is to keep science public. Secret knowledge, no matter how
laboriously acquired, is less than science.

Some knowledge, of course, must remain secret for the security of the
nation. But unless there is a clear security risk, publish all else. Why?
Science belongs to the people: they pay for it; they benefit from it. The
benefits of scientific knowledge accrue far more rapidly when that knowledge
lies open for all to see, to test and to try.

In my field, quantum computation, openness is beneficial. Quantum mechanics
is famously weird, and one of the consequences of quantum weirdness is that
even a small quantum computer, consisting of a few thousand atoms, has the
potential to break all existing public-key cryptosystems.

As a result, quantum computers pose a significant threat to the security not
only of classified encoded material, but also of most commercial
transactions. Yet our national security agencies have elected to award grant
money for quantum computing research with the stipulation that the results
be published.

This is a wise policy. There is no doubt large-scale quantum computers will
pose a risk to security. But they don't how exist, and constructing them
will require the scientific and engineering community to solve wide-ranging
problems of nanofabrication and control. The potential benefits of such
research are a thousand times greater than any drawback from potential
disruption to security.

-- Seth Lloyd, a professor of quantum-mechanical engineering at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fending Off the Big One

As an astrophysicist, I admit that few issues in my trade could be
considered pressing. However, there is one aspect of my work that could have
deadly consequences -- or, more precisely, will have deadly consequences if
it is ignored. Here is where heaven and Earth meet: in the long-run
certainty that people will die from the effects of an asteroid, large or
small, hitting the planet.

NASA has been discovering and tracking asteroids, but the financing had not
been sufficient to catalog most of them, and no money had gone to study how
an asteroid might be deflected, even though the technology has, in
principle, been available.

Fortunately, it is rather straightforward to develop a spacecraft that could
reach a 100-meter diameter asteroid and give it a nudge so that it would
miss the earth. For example, scientists have made great strides with plasma
engines -- which are much more effective than traditional chemical engines
and use radio waves to heat their fuel and magnetic fields to direct a
stream of ultrahot ionized gases -- which could be used as space "tug

All we have to do is carry out a test mission in which we demonstrate the
ability to significantly alter an asteroid's orbit. Then when we discover an
asteroid with our name on it, we will be prepared. Plasma engine advances
would also speed up human expansion into space. This initiative could open
the door to populating other worlds while at the same time making our own
world a safer place.

-- Piet Hut, astrophysicist, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.

Intellectual Globalization

Both art and science address the most profound issues of the day yet often
face each other across a great divide. A new National Institute for Humanism
would encourage collaborations across the arts, humanities and sciences in
tackling important questions about who and what we are. Call it the
intellectual equivalent of globalization.

Milan Kundera once wrote that every novel offers some answer to the
question. "What is human existence and wherein does its poetry lie?" I
submit that so does every work of important science.

-- Nancy Etcoff, author and instructor in the department of psychiatry at
the Harvard Medical School.

Cassandras of the Labs

Scientists are as much victims of fashion as ordinary mortals are -- a fact
illustrated by the rich history of junk science and false alarms of the last
30 years. Recall a few instances:

In the mid-1970's, many climatologists warned of an ice age that would
severely diminish agricultural productivity by the year 2000.

In 1972, the United States banned DDT, only to find out, years later, that
the evidence of the pesticide's harmful effects on human beings is
inconclusive. In the meantime, millions of people -- 1 in 20 African
children, for example -- have died of malaria, as Europe and the United
States remain reluctant to support controlling mosquitoes with DDT.

And let's not forget the dire warnings about natural resources. In the
1970's, we were told that there would be essentially no oil left by the

Science retains its alarmist streak today. The scuttlebutt among the
scientists I know is that they have a better chance of getting a government
or private grant if they indicate that their research might uncover a
serious threat or problem. Media fascination with bad news is partly to
blame, along with the principled gloominess and nagging of nongovernmental
pressure groups. But government itself has played its natural part.

The point is not to be cynical about science fads but to know enough to
choose wisely when it comes to supporting pure science, along with research
that can give us beneficial technologies.

-- Denis Dutton, Department of Philosophy, University of Canterbury, New

Really Popular Science

I believe that if 1 percent of the money now being distributed for science
went to research that was of real interest to taxpayers, science would
become more popular.

At present, money generally goes to research sought by the scientific
establishment, corporations and government bureaucracies. The administration
of science is neither democratically accountable, nor carried out in a
democratic spirit.

My proposal is that 99 percent of the research funds continue to be
allocated in the usual way. But I suggest that 1 percent be spent in a way
that reflects the curiosity of lay people, who pay for all publicly financed
research through taxes. It would be necessary to create a separate body. One
possible name would be the National Discovery Center.

The center would be governed by a board representing a wide range of
interests, including nongovernmental organizations, schools and voluntary
associations. Individuals could send suggestions in over the Internet. Local
and national organizations could lobby for projects. Potential subjects for
research could be discussed in the news media.

This new venture would make science more attractive to young people,
stimulate interest in scientific thinking and hypothesis-testing, and help
break down the depressing alienation many people feel from science.

-- Rupert Sheldrake, author of "Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming
Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals."

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