CCNet 18/2003 -  17 February 2003

"A fleet of mini-probes could be sent to rendezvous with asteroids
in an ambitious British- led plan to investigate the threat of space
objects hitting Earth. The five micro- satellites, only 60 cms long and
weighing 120 kg, would each target an asteroid of a type considered
to be potentially dangerous. Each asteroid would be physically different and
measure between 400 metres and 1,300 metres in diameter. The key objective
would be to understand more about the threat posed by more than 100,000
Near Earth Objects (NEOs) hurtling around the Solar System."
--Ananova, 17 February 2003

"Forget Bruce Willis, daring space missions and Hollywood high
explosives. If a real life Armageddon-style asteroid were discovered on
a deadly collision course with the Earth politicians would be better
off doing nothing and telling no one, scientists heard yesterday. According
to Geoffrey Sommer, of the Rand Corporation, an American think tank,
advance warning of the end of the world would bring chaos to the streets,
rioting in the shopping malls and send the economy spiralling out of
control. Rather than spread "unnecessary" panic, politicians might be
wise to keep it dark, he said. There are still no plans for civil
defence in the event of the sudden discovery of a doomsday asteroid and no
studies of how it could be deflected out of harm's way, he told the
--David Derbyshire, The Daily Telegraph, 15 February 2003

    Ananova, 16 February 2003

    European Space Agency, 15 February 2003

    The Globe and Mail, 15 February 2003

    The Daily Telegraph, 15 February 2003

    The Daily Telegraph, 15 February 2003

    BBC News Online, 14 February 2003

    Space Daily, 17 February 2003

    The Washington Post, 17 February 2003

    James Marusek <>

     Alain Maury <>

     Andy Smith <>

     Daniel Fischer <>

     ScappleFace, 14 February 2003


>From Ananova, 16 February 2003

A fleet of mini-probes could be sent to rendezvous with asteroids in an
ambitious British-led plan to investigate the threat of space objects
hitting Earth.

The five micro-satellites, only 60 cms long and weighing 120 kg, would each
target an asteroid of a type considered to be potentially dangerous.

Each asteroid would be physically different and measure between 400 metres
and 1,300 metres in diameter.

A consortium led by QinetiQ, formerly the major part of the Government's
Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera), has submitted the proposal to
the European Space Agency. One attraction of the plan is its low cost, by
space mission standards - expected to be no more than 100 million.

The key objective would be to understand more about the threat posed by more
than 100,000 Near Earth Objects (NEOs) hurtling around the Solar System.
Throughout the Earth's 4.5 billion-year history asteroids and comets have
collided with the planet on numerous occasions, and there have been many
near misses.

A giant object which slammed into the Earth off the coast of Mexico 65
million years ago is widely believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs.

In 1908, a small object flattened 2,000 square kilometres of Siberian forest
at Tunguska, and a near-miss was reported as recently as June last year.

The asteroid mission has been named Simone (Smallsat Intercept Missions to
Objects Near Earth).

Dr Roger Walker, senior mission and systems engineer at QinetiQ, said:
"There is a critical science need to learn more about NEOs. They are made
from a variety of materials, such as metal, rock, carbon porous matter or

"The objective of the Simone mission will be to determine the
characteristics of different NEO targets so we can plan how best to respond
to the impact threat."

Copyright 2003, Ananova


>From European Space Agency, 15 February 2003

NEO Space Mission Preparation

Smallsat Intercept Missions to Objects Near Earth

The Mission

SIMONE is a unique interplanetary mission concept comprising a fleet of
low-cost microsatellites that will individually rendezvous with a different
Near Earth Object (NEO), each of a distinct spectral and/or physical type.
In-situ science measurements taken by instruments on-board each spacecraft
enable the wide diversity in the physical and compositional properties of
the NEO population to be characterised in a highly cost-effective manner.
Analysis of the in-situ measurement data from the SIMONE rendezvous missions
will provide:

Valuable scientific knowledge on the nature, origin and processing of NEOs

Critical physical/compositional information needed for the accurate
prediction of impact risk (particularly damage potential) posed by NEOs
Critical physical/compositional information needed for the development of
effective NEO risk mitigation strategies that are specifically tailored for
each NEO type.

The SIMONE mission study team is led by QinetiQ (UK) in partnership with the
Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute (PSSRI) of the Open
University (UK), SciSys (UK), Politecnico di Milano (Italy) and Telespazio



>From The Globe and Mail, 15 February 2003

Space sentinels patrol the skies, looking for asteroids or comets that could
smash into Earth with devastating results. But it's hard to get money to to
plan for something that may not happen for hundreds, maybe millions, of
years. ANNE McILROY reports

Shortly before dawn on Dec. 6, 1997, Jim Scotti was at his post atop a
mountain in Arizona, scanning the heavens for a killer.

Mr. Scotti, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, is part of a small
community of space sentinels, researchers who use land-based telescopes to
patrol a large volume of space around Earth for giant asteroids and comets
heading our way.

They are trying to protect mankind from going the way of the dinosaurs,
which, if they weren't instantly blown up or burned to a crisp, probably
starved to death after a heavenly body 10 to 15 kilometres in diameter
smashed into the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico 65 million years ago.

Every night, two telescopes on Kitt Peak are pointed at the sky, right about
where the sun would be at high noon. As the astronomer on duty, Mr. Scotti
sat in a small office by himself, sipping Tang and watching hundreds of
asteroids drift by on three computer screens. Most were moving quite slowly,
travelling a distance equal to half the diameter of the moon every 24 hours.

Then his asteroid-spotting software picked out a blurry circle on the screen
that was moving more quickly, a candidate for what astronomers call Near
Earth Objects, asteroids that might one day hit the planet and wipe out the
human race.

His discovery was named 1997 XF11, and over the next 90 days, other
astronomers did some quick calculations and figured that the asteroid was
almost two kilometres in diameter and travelling at more than 27,000
kilometres an hour.

They concluded that 1997 XF11 was the most dangerous asteroid yet observed
and would pass within 57,000 kilometres of Earth -- a hair width in
astronomical terms. It was coming in our direction, and if it hit, it would
explode with the energy of two million Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

"My first thought was, 'This is our ticket,' " Mr. Scotti remembers.

This is not the line of dramatic dialogue a Hollywood screenwriter would
write at this point in an asteroid impact disaster flick. But Mr. Scotti saw
the possibilities rather than the danger of an asteroid that might kill
billions of people.

Fear over an impact might galvanize governments into spending more money
spotting asteroids, a pursuit that began in earnest only 10 years ago and is
still only meagrely funded compared with other elements of the U.S. space

Researchers meeting this week at the annual conference of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science lamented the lack of funding,
especially for studies on how to best prepare for when the big one hits,
which if the initial calculations had been right, would have been Oct. 26,
2028. Fortunately, they were wrong.

A few months later, astronomers found earlier images of 1997 XF11 that
nobody had noticed, and calculated that it would miss Earth by a far more
comfortable margin. It was no longer a threat.

The story of 1997 XF11 demonstrates two truths -- one of them comforting,
the other disturbing -- about the men and women who guard our planet from
cosmic catastrophe.

They don't lose sleep fretting over the doomsday scenarios they have helped
to piece together on what would happen if an asteroid or comet hits. They
don't worry about their hometown being turned into a crater or about being
baked to death when the surface of the Earth turns into a convection oven
after a major impact.

Those who work near the ocean aren't moving away for fear of tidal waves as
high as the sea is deep. They aren't survivalists, stockpiling food for the
three-year winter that would be caused by all the dust blocking out the rays
of the sun. Many of them have children, are saving for retirement. They
don't have bunkers in the basement.

"True, we live in a shooting gallery, but it is a big shooting gallery and
we are a small target," says Jay Melosh, another astronomer at the
University of Arizona. "The risk of dying when an asteroid hits is about the
same as dying in a plane crash or winning the lottery."

Someone always wins the lottery, but if the apocalypse experts aren't
neurotic about death by fireball, then why should we be?

That's where the disturbing truth about asteroid researchers comes in. They
make mistakes. Sometimes, they don't see asteroids or comets heading in our
general direction until after they have whizzed by. Sometimes, they
underestimate the destructive power of giant hunks of rock and metal
travelling 50 to 100 times faster than a speeding bullet.

Take the case of Comet Shoemaker-Levy, which was heading toward an impact
with Jupiter in 1994. In an article for the journal Nature, comet expert
Paul Weissman predicted that the impact would be a "cosmic fizzle."

Instead, the giant fireballs that ignited in Jupiter's atmosphere were
visible through telescopes on Earth. One of the chunks, fragment G, left a
dark brown scar as big as our entire planet.

The surface of the Earth is pockmarked with its own cosmic scars, 171 impact
craters around the world, 31 in Canada. From the air, they look like
ring-shaped stains left by the bottom of giant coffee cups. Most impact
sites are likely under the oceans that cover three-quarters of the Earth's
surface. There is plenty of proof we have been hit before, and will be hit

The last time the Earth was struck by something as destructive as the
Shoemaker-Levy comet was 65 million years ago, when a heavenly body careened
into Mexico, leaving a crater that was the first, and so far the only one on
Earth, to be linked to one of the mass extinctions of plant and animal life
that the fossil record shows happen every 26 million to 30 million years. In
this case, it was the dinosaurs and 99 per cent of the plants and animals
that lived with them during the age of the reptiles that disappeared

It was a distinguished Canadian geologist, Digby McLaren, who in 1970 first
proposed that asteroids or comets might be linked to mass extinctions. The
theory was controversial, but gained momentum when Luis Alvarez and his team
found a high incidence of iridium, an element far more common in
extraterrestrial objects than on Earth, in the fossil record just as the
dinosaurs disappeared.

The search for the crater began, and in 1990 Canadian Alan Hildebrand, now
at the University of Calgary, helped to prove that the crater in the Yucatan
landed just before the dinosaurs disappeared.

"What would be the impact of an asteroid the same size in today's world? I
honestly don't know what fraction of the human population would survive. It
would certainly be less than a 10th, maybe much less, and we would lose many
of the existing species on land, sea and air," Dr. Hildebrand says.

Something that size hits only every 100 million years or so, he adds.

Scientists generally accept the theory that an asteroid or a comet killed
the dinosaurs, although they aren't sure which it was.

Big asteroids are rubble piles of dense, pitted rock and metal, described by
scientists as being more like popcorn balls than giant boulders. Comets are
"dirty snowballs," a combination of rock and ice that travel far faster than
asteroids and in orbits that can make them difficult to detect until they
are heading right for us.

Because they are so fast, comets have the potential to do much more damage.
But they are also less dense, which may make them less deadly. They are seen
as wildcards, and account for about 10 per cent of the risk of a deadly

Risk assessment is a large part of this branch of astronomy. How do you deal
with a threat that is low probability, but high risk? Is it worth spending
billions of dollars detecting small asteroids that might kill only a few
million people? What about a few billion people? The analysis changes with
new scientific developments.

For example, Dr. Melosh recently unearthed a U.S. Defence Department study
of underwater nuclear explosions that found the waves created by an asteroid
impact certainly wouldn't be as high as the sea is deep, as many scientists
predicted. In fact, the waves created after an impact would be smaller, and
probably break offshore.

This is comforting news, since the odds are that asteroids will land in the
sea. But for astronomers, it may mean fewer resources in the future for
asteroid surveillance.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration first crunched the
numbers in the early 1990s, and came to the conclusion that Near Earth
Objects larger than one kilometre in diameter are the biggest threat.

Known as "civilization enders," they would explode with energy many times
greater than all the nuclear weapons stockpiled on Earth. Half of the
world's population could be wiped out.

In 1998, NASA started the Spaceguard survey to track these asteroids, and by
2008, it expects to have identified 90 per cent of the big ones coming
within eight million kilometres of Earth.

But that doesn't mean we can relax, says Canadian Robert Jedicke, who is
starting up the next phase of asteroid surveillance this year at an
observatory in Hawaii.

Mid-size asteroids would still be catastrophic enough to turn countries the
size of England into smoking craters, and kill a billion or half a billion

The aim of Dr. Jedicke's project, called PanSTARRS, is to track and
catalogue 90 per cent of all asteroids bigger than 300 metres in diameter.
This work, funded by the U.S. Defence Department, will probably take 15 or
20 years.

When the mid-size asteroids have all been discovered, the next step will be
to locate all asteroids greater than 100 metres in diameter, Dr. Jedicke

Asteroids around 50 metres in diameter will probably explode in the
atmosphere before they hit the Earth. But even these "small" ones can be
extremely dangerous. On June 30, 1908, a meteor probably 60 metres in
diameter exploded seven kilometres over Siberia, incinerating 12,000 square
kilometres of forest in seconds.

The idea, Dr. Jedicke says, is to set up some kind of early-warning system.
The best-case scenario would be to give people a decade or so notice of an
asteroid impact. In the case of big asteroids, this would give scientists
time to come up with a deflection plan and launch a mission to intercept.
Even a warning of a month or a few weeks would save lives.

"We want an early-warning system that will say there is an asteroid heading
for Central Canada, and then people can start thinking about it. Then we can
say, 'It is actually going to hit Saskatoon,' " Dr. Jedicke says.

Then what? That's the question that was posed this week at the annual
meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the
world's largest scientific society. The AAAS devoted one of its high-profile
sessions to risks of asteroid impacts.

There is no international procedure for an asteroid impact, no discussion of
how to handle a crisis that could dwarf any the world has faced.

"This is a new kind of problem," says Lee Clarke, a professor of sociology
at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Like global warming or other
environmental problems, it requires action and money now to protect future
generations. A large asteroid or comet will eventually hit Earth, but it may
not be for hundreds, or even millions, of years.

The worst-case scenario is that an asteroid or comet suddenly appears and
there is no time to deflect it. Should humanity be warned anyway?

Geoffrey Sommer of the Rand Corporation in California says there is no
point. Global panic won't help the situation. "If an extinction-type impact
is inevitable, then ignorance for the populous is bliss."

Dr. Clarke, an expert in disaster response, disagrees. He says studies have
shown that Americans don't panic in the face of natural disasters, such as
hurricanes or earthquakes, if they get information from their leaders that
they can trust.

He has spent some time thinking about what the final days would be like
before an asteroid hits. "I think it would be a lot like the plague in the
Middle Ages. Some people would turn to hedonism. Most people would continue
doing what they did yesterday. Some people would quit work, but others would
try to continue their networks of social affiliation, which in many cases is
work," he says.

An even better scenario, and one that would be more in line with a Hollywood
movie, would give the human race enough time to dispatch a team of
astronauts to the asteroid. They would gently nudge it into a slightly
different orbit. Civilization would be saved.

But the conclusion of this particular real-life drama may not be known for
generations. The handful of scientists now watching the skies for asteroids
can only hope the work they are doing now leads to a happy ending.

Anne McIlroy is The Globe and Mail's Science Reporter.

Asteroids are hunks of rock and metal. Like the Earth, they orbit the sun,
but they are too small to be considered planets. Asteroids are believed to
be material left over from the formaton of the solar system, and most are
found in an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The Earth passes through
the orbits of an estimated 20 million asteroids in its journey around the
sun. Earth-asteroid collisions have happened many times in the past.
Scientists say another one is certain. The queston is when, and how big the
asteroid will be.

Civilization enders are a kilometre in diameter or more. NASA estimates
there are a thousand of them with orbits that bring them close enough to
require monitoring. If one of these struck land, it would release the same
amount of energy as more than a million Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs. Upon
impact, millions of asteroid chunks would fly back into space and rain down
on Earth, turning the surface of the planet into a convection oven. Enough
dust would swirl into the sky to block out the rays of the sun for at least
one growing season, maybe more. Billions of people would die. It is
estimated one will hit every 800,000 years.

Country killers are smaller, 200 metres to just under a kilometre in
diameter, but still deadly enough to do serious damage to a country the size
of England. It is estimated one will hit once every 100,000 years.

City flatteners, asteroids less than 50 metres in diameter, explode when
they enter the Earth's atmosphere, but that doesn't mean they aren't a
danger. In 1908, a small one exploded above Siberia with the force of a
conventional hydrogen bomb, and flattened 12,000 square kilometres of
forest. One of these above New York City, Toronto or any other heavily
populated area could result in serious casualties. It is estimated one will
hit every 1,000 years.

Copyright 2003, The Globe & Mail

>From The Daily Telegraph, 15 February 2003

By David Derbyshire, Science Correspondent, in Denver

Forget Bruce Willis, daring space missions and Hollywood high explosives. If
a real life Armageddon-style asteroid were discovered on a deadly collision
course with the Earth politicians would be better off doing nothing and
telling no one, scientists heard yesterday.

According to Geoffrey Sommer, of the Rand Corporation, an American think
tank, advance warning of the end of the world would bring chaos to the
streets, rioting in the shopping malls and send the economy spiralling out
of control.

Rather than spread "unnecessary" panic, politicians might be wise to keep it
dark, he said. There are still no plans for civil defence in the event of
the sudden discovery of a doomsday asteroid and no studies of how it could
be deflected out of harm's way, he told the association.

Of the 2,000 or so asteroids orbiting the sun close to the Earth, around
1,100 are thought to be at least two thirds of a mile long - big enough to
pose a serious threat to mankind.

Over the last few years, the international collaboration of asteroid
watching scientists, Spaceguard, has tracked 650 possible threats. So far it
has found none that is on target to hit the Earth within the next couple of
hundred years.

However, if an asteroid big enough to wipe out mankind was found to be on
collision course - and if nothing could be done - governments should keep
quiet, Mr Sommer said.

"If you can't do anything about a warning, then there is no point in issuing
a warning at all," he said. "If an extinction type impact is inevitable,
then ignorance for the populace is bliss."

But Dr Lee Clarke, a sociologist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, said the
lesson from history was that people did not panic when facing a crisis. "We
have five decades of research on all kinds of disasters, earthquakes,
tornadoes, plane crashes and so on, and people rarely lose control," he

"If I were to discover that a monster rock was coming towards us and it
could be an extinction event, common sense tells me that I want to know now.
It's not up to any bureaucrat or policy maker to keep that from me. I might
want to make peace with my god."

Copyright 2003, the Daily Telegraph


>From The Daily Telegraph, 15 February 2003

Things being as they are, most of us will view the notion of the Earth being
obliterated by an asteroid with something approaching warmth. But we must
take seriously the American think-tank that recommends that news of the
imminent end of the world be hushed up for fear of damaging confidence in
the stock market. Global extinction - and with it the abolition of human
suffering, the congestion charge and the Australian football team - should
come, if it comes, as an agreeable surprise.

>From BBC News Online, 14 February 2003

By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff in Denver 
Should we be told if a monster rock is heading our way?

Researchers wrestled with this question on Friday at the annual meeting of
the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Denver.

Some suggested there was no point worrying the global population about its
imminent demise.

"If there is absolutely nothing you can do about it - you can't intercept
it, you can't move people out of the way - then it makes no sense to incur
social costs from whatever panic or overreaction there will be," argued
Geoffrey Sommer, of the Rand Corporation, who has been studying how
policymakers should react and prepare for Armageddon.

"If an extinction-type impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the populace
is bliss."

But hang on, don't we have a right to know?

"I'd certainly want to know and it's not up to some bureaucrat to keep that
from me," said Lee Clarke, a sociology professor at Rutgers, The State
University of New Jersey.

Space search

Clarke is an expert in disasters and in organisational and technological

He has written about panic, civil defence, evacuation and community response
to disaster, and says people tend to react well in a crisis.

"The single most important reason there were not more casualties at the
World Trade Center collapse was because there was no panic," he argued. "It
does happen - there are soccer stampedes and the like - but it is very

The possibility of a major impact from space is a certainty. The geological
record shows the Earth has been hit many times by large objects - some of
which have come close to wiping life clean from the face of the planet.

All asteroid researchers say we will be hit again by objects much greater
than one kilometre across - although it may not happen for tens, hundreds or
even thousands of years.

The Spaceguard Survey, conducted by the US space agency (Nasa), is looking
for these big rocks with wide-field telescopes.

In the space out to about 200 million km, it has so far found about 650
"monsters" - none of which have orbits that pose a threat to the Earth.
There is possibly a similar figure of undiscovered one-km-plus-sized rocks
in the same region of space that have yet to be tracked down.

If a threatening object is found, many researchers are confident Earth will
have the time and the technology to do something about it.

Constant 'rain'

Clark Chapman is an asteroid scientist from the Southwest Research
Institute. He told the AAAS meeting:

"We've landed a spacecraft on an asteroid; we have thrusting devices. We
don't need a bomb. We could push on it and push it out of the way.

"It would take a while but we could deal with it. The real problem arises
with comets that come from the deep, dark reaches of the outer Solar System.

"We don't see them until they get to Jupiter and they're in the vicinity of
the Earth within a few months or a year after that. Perhaps there won't be
enough time to deal with that."

All are agreed that proper disaster plans need to be put in place now and
that the public needs to be educated about the real threat and how we might

Every year, a small asteroid explodes in the Earth's atmosphere with an
energy equivalent to 5,000 tonnes of TNT. Lee Clarke said: "Stuff comes in
and it blows up. This sort of thing needs to be common knowledge."

Copyright 2003, BBC


>From Space Daily, 17 February 2003

Do people have a right to know their fate should an asteroid or comet be
detected on an impact trajectory with Earth.

by Benny Peiser

Liverpool - Feb 17, 2003
Just when you thought we had learned our lessons from past communication
debacles and PR fiascoes, bizarre statements at the Denver AAAS meeting have
plunged the NEO community into another crisis of credibility.

"Don't tell Public of Doomsday Asteroid", reads the headline in today's The
Times, while The Independent warns: "Armageddon Asteroids best kept secret."

The Internet (Drudge Report, etc.) and fringe websites are already brimming
with gloating links to this asteroid-cover-up story while doomsday prophets
and conspiracy-theorists can't believe their good fortune: "We've told you

What happened? How could a harmless NEO panel generate conspiracy-
advocating headlines around the world that will seriously damage the
integrity of the NEO community?

The international media coverage is dominated by statements by Geoffrey
Sommer, a RAND researcher who has been studying the social and economic
implications of the impact hazard.

At the root of the problem seems to be an AAAS press release that triggered
most of the international 'cover-up' reports. According to the press
release, Geoffrey "takes the controversial stance of advocating silence and
secrecy in the event that a warning would come too late and not make a
difference to the outcome."

This is, of course, a highly contentious proposal that has already
backfired. The harsh reaction is not surprising since most interested
observers are either dubious or even hostile to the whole idea. After all,
how would we assess and who would decide whether or not an impact warning is
"too late"?

Too late for what?

Geoffrey qualifies his strategy with reference to a hypothetical
'extinction-type impact' that cannot be averted: "If you can't do anything
about a warning, then there is no point in issuing a warning at all. If an
extinction-type impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the populous is

I find this hypothetical scenario absurd for a number of reasons. First of
all, the likelihood of being confronted with such an event in the near
future is as good as zero. But - for the sake of argument - let us say such
an object would have been discovered. In such a case, we would be confronted
with a host of complex problems and dilemmas:

For a start, after discovery, we would not know for quite some time (perhaps
weeks, months or years) whether or not the object would actually hit the
Earth. In fact, the impact probability might go up to 50% before plunging to
0%! I don't think any expert would seriously argue that a 5-10km asteroid
may be spotted only weeks before impact. In all likelihood, we would have
years of warning.

But even in the unlikely event that time for any deflection attempt were too
short, how can we be certain that the impact would really cause
mass-extinction, including the extinction of the human species?

After all, we might not have sufficient information about the object's size
and composition. In short, even with little time left for mitigation, many
activities could be undertaken by the world community to attempt human
survival after a global disaster.

To tell the truth, the advocated secrecy, far from being 'cost-effective' as
Geoffrey Sommer oddly claims, would most certainly preclude any such
survival attempt.

Evidently, the 'extinction-type impact' scenario is a red herring. So what
really lies behind this thinking? It would appear that Geoff Sommer is not
so much concerned about the cost-effective handling of the apocalypse but
about the future management of notoriously tricky impact risk uncertainties.

"When a problem arises with high uncertainty, there is an opportunity to
spin the problem to avoid global panic." That's what this whole business is
all about: Not the conjured certainty of Doomsday but the genuine
uncertainty of potentially problematic future impact risk assessments!

That Geoff is not bothered whether we will meet our demise in an orderly or
untidy fashion is palpable in other statements he gave to the press:

"If an asteroid or comet is found to be bearing down on Earth, what would
you tell the populace to avoid widespread panic? One panelist, Geoff Sommer,
wonders if authorities should say anything at all. Some elements of society
would thrive off such knowledge, he said, including British tabloids,
cultists long announcing the end of the world, and potential survivors who
might want to buy up land for a future tourist attraction.

But limiting panic and avoiding the premature financial collapse of the
stock markets would be additional benefits to secrecy."

Geoffrey seems earnestly concerned that British tabloids, the Southern
Baptists and future property developers might benefit from too much NEO

While this whole argumentation looks utterly ridiculous to me, it does -
unintentionally - raise one fundamental (while highly unlikely) question:
Since there may be impact survivors, isn't it is our ethical obligation to
do everything in our power to inform the public as soon as necessary so to
increase the chances of human survival? I, for one, firmly believe it is!

Which brings me to my final point: Why bring up this conspiracy proposal
given that any attempted secrecy is totally futile in the first place?

Astronomers from around the world can easily access and confirm
observational data and calculations of any discovered NEO in any case.

The damage, however, of contemplating a cover-up stratagem will be immense:
it will strengthen the erroneous but widespread suspicion that some members
of the NEO community are more concerned about covering-up or "spinning" than
explaining the facts truthfully.

The price we will pay for the increased mistrust this episode is causing is
very high. In fact, it is much higher than any of the inadvertent asteroid
scares of the last 4 years. I fear it will also be more difficult to repair
the damage it has done to our integrity.


>From The Washington Post, 17 February 2003
By Guy Gugliotta and Rick Weiss

In 1995, NASA's first comprehensive assessment of the risks of flying the
space shuttle pegged the probability of catastrophic failure at one in every
145 flights. Three years later, after a series of safety upgrades, new
calculations improved the odds to one in every 245 flights.

But the disintegration of Columbia over Texas on Feb. 1 was the second
shuttle loss in 112 flights, a frequency of failure that is raising
questions about how useful NASA's safety assessments have been in its
decisions on whether, and when, to send people into space.

For years critics have attacked the agency's risk analyses, with some
accusing NASA of painting overly rosy pictures in an effort to prop up
public support and others saying the analyses have been hobbled by
inadequate budgets. Predictably, NASA came under a renewed round of such
criticism this past week.

"Why hasn't NASA pushed those issues? If you don't like the odds, reduce
them, and that's what they haven't done," said Michael Sutton of the
University of South Carolina, a specialist on shuttle wear and stress. "This
is rocket science; it's not a simple system, and we should hold them
accountable for that."




>From James Marusek <>

Benny Peiser

I have read some of the fallout from Goeffrey Sommers comments at the
American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting.  Suppose
an extinction level asteroid or comet was on an impact trajectory with Earth
and something could be done about it. But the information was suppressed by
the U.S. Government and other world governments as suggested by Goeffrey
Sommer until it was too late to take any action.

I believe that most people can work together in a crisis and if given
accurate information and a plan to cope with a disaster can overcome great

James A. Marusek


>From Alain Maury <>

Dear Benny,

This was a weird Peisergram...

Why would an unlikely, unrealistic scenario plunge our community into a
crisis of credibility?
We are not in 1990 anymore, the subject has been more than debated, and the
fact is that there is a global concensus on the way to handle this
situation. That does not mean they are still people who have the right to

- If some people still expect to find in the last minute an impacting body
of very large diameter, this is their problem (they could do a little
probability calculations beforehand though).

- If, moreover they believe that this information can be kept secret, it is
again their problem. Astronomers are not military personel, and there is a
thing called internet, several independent group making possible impact
calculations for every newly discovered object, in different countries.

- If the object is smaller then the "extinction level event" to use the
vocabulary of the Deep Impact movie, everybody agrees that informing the
people can allow an evacuation and save those who are able to escape.

- The end of the world is not coming, yet. (I guess this would be paragraph
1 on the list of items on which we, the NEO community, all agree upon).

It is your job to inform us of this type of "happening", but I don't feel we
are less credible because somebody used a weird scenario (Earth a few days
from total annihilation) to conclude something which is contrary to what
most of us believe. I think you chose the wrong title.

As far as I am concerned, I have been advocating for a better presentation
of the information on "possible impactors" of low quality orbit. All the
objects which have been announced in the last few years in the media as "end
of the world in 2029" objects were objects with an observed arc which length
in days could be counted on ones fingers or almost so. I don't believe that
such objects warrant any precipitation in the communication to the public.
If we are able to say to the public that it is not important to discover an
object after its close approach, in the same manner we can afford to loose
an object which has a one in a millionth probability of impact.
Both will be rediscovered a few years later in due time by the every
increasingly efficient survey programs. I am asking for suppressing the
words like "impactors" on object which we know have a very very large
probability of not being impactors. I guess the second paragraph of the list
of items on the concensus is that we don't have to fool ourselves. We will
not save the world (logical conclusion of paragraph 1).


MODERATOR'S NOTE: We should not underestimate the real damage the AAAS NEO
meeting has done to the veracity and reputation of the NEO community. The
'secrecy'-proposal was not uttered in an ignorant spur-of-the-moment. As
Geoffrey Sommer has confirmed, it seems to be a serious plan to withhold or
distort information in certain (highly contentious) circumstances. What is
more, this thoughtless idea has been widely circulated and published by the
most powerful science organisation, the AAAS. This is not a trivial matter.
Not surprisingly, some people in the media are already presenting this as a
sinister U.S Government plot to deceive the public. I don't quite understand
the criticism of the CCNet headline which is more or less identical to those
used by the mass media. Whether you call it "cover-up proposal" or "Don't
tell the Public" (The Times) or "keep it secret" (The Indepdent) - it all
boils down to the suggestion that astronomical information in certain
circumstances should be withheld or distorted. I am very critical of the
whole idea not only because it is utterly ill-considered, but even more so
because it damages our trustworthiness. Which is the last thing we need if
we want to prevent asteroid-related urban legends, conspiracy theories and
hysteria. It will certainly deepen the mistrust in some quarters about
future announcements by the NEO community. This could be extremely harmful
in future cases of necessary asteroid alerts, i.e. exactly in those critical
times when we want our announcements to be trusted by a concerned public.


>From Andy Smith <>

Hello Benny and CCNet,

Congratulations to Space.Com and to you and the other participants in the
new Space.Com feature and we certainly encourage the CCNet participants to
follow it. The first part was titled "The Good News" and it featured Don
Yeomans, Clark Chapman, Joe Veverka, Benny P., Alan Harris and Peter Ward.
It was posted on the internet on 11 February. Part 2:Media Hype is expected
next Tuesday (18 Feb.). The other two segments should follow. Part 1 is at:

We need all of the good publicity we can get, for our cause....which is,
without doubt, the most important technical challenge in history. And we are
certainly grateful to the Space.Com folks for recognizing the seriousness of
this issue and giving it the attention they have given it. We hope that they
will take this opportunity to provide their readers with an accurate picture
of the threat, the dangers, the defense options and to the need for civil
emergency preparedness. Issues of concern to us include the following:

1. There are at least 100,000 rock bombs out there that are bigger than
Tuguska (20 megaton range) and we have good data on only about two percent
of them. At our present (very improved) discovery rate, it will take more
than a century to complete this vital inventory.

2. We have increased the global discovery rate by two orders-of-magnitude
(from about 5 per year to almost 500 per year) in the last decade...thanks
to the hard work of our four great search teams/facilities... LINEAR, NEAT,
LONEOS and SPACEWATCH and others; our great global data centers and
leaders..starting with Brian Marsden and a host of contributors to the MPC
NEO Program and NEODys (Italy). We are also very grateful for the support
received from the IAU, the U.S.Air Force, NASA, the National Science
Foundation, the Space Subcommittee of the U.S. House Science Committee and
many technical societies and other universites and institutions.

3. Most of the undiscovered (and very dangerous) NEO are smaller than about
500 meters wide (abs. mag. 20 or so) and they cannot be located with the
equipment now in use. We need larger telescopes and/or better CCD cameras.
In this regard, it would be good to say a few words about the pan-STARRS,
LSST, GAIA, Sub-Millimetron and other exciting major
third-generation NEO hunting systems which are now in development.

4. We should also mention that there is no coverage in the Southern
Hemisphere. This is a pressing need which was being effectively met by
Duncan Steel, Rob McNaught and others, until the support was lost.
Restoration should have a high priority.

5. Our colleagues in the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, Japan, Australia,
Canada, France, Germany and many other countries are doing a great job, with
very limited resources, of contributing to this largely volunteer
undertaking. Those efforts should be recognized during the Debate, if at all
possible. It is impressive to see so many experts (from so many countries,
languages and cultures), pulling togeather, simply because they share a
common awareness of this tremendous danger and what we can do to protect

6. The risk of the next hit is not trivial. It may be as high as
one-in-a-hundred per year. There is a near-miss of our orbit about every
half-hour and a 300-400 meter NEO impact, in any ocean, could destroy most
of the coastal cities on that ocean. Finally, the danger threshold, for an
NEO winter, may be in the 400 meter range (much smaller than the K-T

7. A lot is being done to develop the capability to intercept potentially
hazardous NEO and that should be recognized. Also, successfully completed
development missions, like Deep Space 1 and NEAR, and exciting future
missions, such as Deep Impact, should be mentioned.. These activities are
truly good news. We are making progress. We need more support and funding
but we are making progress.

8. It is extremely important to include NEO impact emergency preparedness in
our thinking and planning and it is especially important for the coastal
cities to have plans and be trained to survive NEO tsunamis. The Pacific
cites are preparing for rapid tsunami evacuation but the Atlantic cities do
not seem to be included, yet.

9. Special recognition should be given to the international Spaceguard
(based in Italy) and Space Shield (based in Russia) foundations and all they
are doing to advance our cause. These outstanding programs should be
mentioned, if possible.
While the initial debate segment was interesting, it seemed to soft-pedal
the seriousness of this vital issue. To us, the good news is the progress we
are making toward real emergency prevention and preparedness. 

As experts who have been following this matter for more than a decade, we
welcomed the comments made by Benny, in this initial debate, and we hope it
will be possible to focus more on the seriousness of the danger and on what
is being done about it (and what is needed in funding and legislative
recognition) to get the action priority we need. The need for recognition,
support and funding is being felt in all of the active countries.

The 2003 Hunt

We are off to a great start, with more than 60 new NEO discoveries already
on the books for this year. It is also gratifying to see more activity in
all of the search programs. We are anxious to see these important programs
operating at their maximum capacities and to see the next generation of
search systems become operational.


Andy Smith/International Planetary Protection


>From Daniel Fischer <>

Hi Benny,

recently Michael Paine was looking in vain (no pun intended) for an old New
Scientist story on the web - but thanks to a wonderful tool, the
WayBackMachine at, it's often possible to retrieve lost
documents. For example, the story Michael was looking for can be found at - for free!
Strangely enough I learned about this
amazing archive from a recent article in the print edition of - the New
Scientist ...


>From ScappleFace, 14 February 2003

A dejected Saddam Hussein quietly packed his bags and left the main
Presidential palace today after he lost a 'no confidence' vote in the Iraqi

Peace protestors around the world have called for such a vote saying, "we
think Saddam should go, but that is for the Iraqi people to decide and not
the United States."

Indeed the representatives of the Iraqi people have spoken, dismissing the
only leader many Iraqis can remember. Despite years of Saddam's propaganda,
they voted their consciences. Heedless of the brutal dictator's track record
of torturing and executing political opponents, they cast their votes
against him. Regardless of Saddam's history of using chemical and biological
weapons against Iraqi citizens, they stood their ground and said
collectively, "You must go." Surrounded by his loyal and vicious security
force and Republican guards, they decided to do what's right for the Iraqi

Asked what he would do next, Mr. Hussein said wistfully, "I'm going to
Euro-Disney with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder. Then I'm going to
talk with my old friend Yassir Arafat about that prime minister position
he's advertising."

Copyright 2003, ScappleFace

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David Whitehouse <>

Dear Benny,

I wonder if I quite get this story?

I am quite amazed that there are some in the NEO community who have the
audacity to think that if an NEO is found that is on, or suspected to be
on, a collision course with the Earth then the public should not be told
at any stage because if nothing can be done then why alarm people about
something they cannot do anything about. Let them be ignorant until the
end, unless perhaps they happen to live next door to a knowing NEO

I will leave to one side the debate about what could be done to deflect
an incoming NEO or the steps that could be taken to archive human
achievements or indeed the denial of the right of some people on the
verge of death to make their peace with their fellow humans and/or their

Who gives them the right to make such a decision? Who actually would
make such the decision? What would be their qualifications, their
accountability? Is this really regarded as being a responsible and
accountable stance by those whose salaries are paid out of the public
purse? Indeed, I wonder if this notion really has much support in the
NEO community?

The ethics of such a stance are unsupportable. There are other areas of
science where the 'they don't need to know' argument has been debated
and discounted as unethical.

Talking of being unethical...last year I accurately reported what some
experienced NEO watchers said about the possibility of 2002 NT7 striking
the Earth. Despite the fact that there was nothing inaccurate in the
article I wrote I was accused by some researchers as being unethical
because I had the audacity to report it at all.

Following this accusation some researchers even had the audacity to
offer suggestions about how to improve my journalism - in both ethics
and practice. A few did so in an arrogant and pompous manner that
showed they had only the flimsiest understanding about how the media
really works and an over-inflated assessment of my own, and their own,
importance. Are these the people who want to decide if we are grown up
enough to be told we are going to die?

Given the asteroid scares of the recent past  - which should be regarded
as a blessing to a field that needs to get its message across - I wonder
if some have learned anything in the past few years.




>From Jens Kieffer-Olsen <>

Dear Benny Peiser,

You posted a clarification from Geoffrey Sommer on CCNet, but
unfortunately Mr. Sommer brought no definition of his 'extinction-
type impact'. Had he mentioned specifically a one hundred miles wide
KBO (responding to congestion charges by attempting a U-turn and
becoming Earth-bound in the process?), then yes - it could be argued
that there is little point in issuing a warning.

But assuming that he is talking about a less unlikely 10k dinosaur
killer, it should be remembered that our ancestors were among those
creatures great and small, who survived the previous cataclysm
65 million years ago. If they could find shelter without any
forewarning, then we humans should be in a much better position
to pull through - even a fair few individuals not granted admission
to Mt. Weather and similar sanctuaries.

With proper warning time a large number of people may abandon
their death-trap dwellings and dig comfortable holes in the ground
instead - just like our dwarf lemurian ancestors may have dodged
destruction by fire.

Yours sincerely
Jens Kieffer-Olsen, M.Sc.(Elec.Eng.)
Slagelse, Denmark

CCCMENU CCC for 2002