CCNet 31/2001, 27 February 2001

"Plans to tackle the threat of asteroids that could strike Earth
have been announced by the UK science minister. But they fall far short
of recommendations made last year by the government's Near Earth
Object task force."
--Emma Young, New Scientist, 26 February 2001

"The bottom line is that, with the noble few exceptions known to us
all, I see an amazing lack of support from the astronomical community for
a project that has, unlike most, a direct relevance and appeal to the
general public who, after all, pay the wages. I wonder why? It can't be
ignorance, I sincerely hope it isn't a case of "I want that money for my
pet project", so what can it be?  Without more support from the likes of
PPARC and the BNSC, the Spaceguard project will end up dead in the water,
killed by endless tittle- tattle. That would be a case of gross
negligence of the highest order."
--Jay Tate, 26 February 2001

"I think the Government's response to the Task Force response,
although short on actual commitments, nevertheless, when taken also
with the establishment of a centre for Astrobiology, represents probably
unintentionally a major crossing of the Rubicon -  the "giggle factor" is
now definitely behind us; in commissioning the Task Force at all, and in
accepting its findings, albeit only intellectually, they will have to engage
with the findings of scientists who will continue to study the
issues. The other dimension - winning the hearts and minds of an
articulate section of the public - is now more important than ever, and
the Government's response can be taken in evidence of the validity of our
concerns - since they have NOT laughed them of."
--Michael Martin-Smith, 26 February 2001

    New Scientist, 26 February 2001


    Jay Tate <>

    Michael Martin-Smith <>

    Der Spiegel, 26 February 2001

    Scientific American, 26 February 2001

    Andrew Yee <>

    Andrew Yee <>

    Ron Baalke <>

     Ron Baalke <>

     Andrew Yee <>


From New Scientist, 26 February 2001

Plans to tackle the threat of near-Earth asteroids, announced by the UK
science minister, are "very disappointing"

Plans to tackle the threat of asteroids that could strike Earth have been
announced by the UK science minister. But they fall far short of
recommendations made last year by the government's Near Earth Object task

The task force called for the UK to take the world lead in monitoring Near
Earth Objects and to develop plans to defend the planet. It called for a new
three-metre telescope in the southern hemisphere, a centre in the UK to
co-ordinate Near Earth Object research and for asteroid
detectors to be added to a space-based telescope set for launch by 2012.

The new government announcement of a series of feasibility studies into some
of the proposals, rather than a commitment to action, is "very
disappointing", says Jonathan Tate of Spaceguard UK. "A golden opportunity
for the UK to take a world lead is in danger of being lost."

The Science Minister Lord Sainsbury has pledged that the Particle Physics
and Astronomy Research Council will analyse the "most effective" ways of
using new or existing telescopes to broaden the search for Near Earth

He also announced the establishment of a centre to provide information to
the public about NEOs, but not to co-ordinate research. The stellar survey
telescope GAIA will search for moving objects "if it is feasible".

But Lord Sainsbury has defended his announcement. "The potential threat of
asteroids and other Near Earth Objects to our planet is an international
problem requiring international action," he says. "The UK through the
measures announced today can play an important part in how the international
community tackles this potential problem."

"Target Earth", a feature article in the 3 March issue of New Scientist
magazine, will explore in detail the dangers we face from asteroid

Correspondence about this story should be directed to

1234 GMT, 26 February 2001

Emma Young

Copyright 2001, New Scientist


From, 26 February 2001

By the Associated Press
posted: 03:16 pm ET
26 February 2001    

LONDON (AP) -- It sounds like the stuff of science fiction -- an asteroid
smashing into Earth, with devastating effect. But the British government on
Saturday announced plans to watch and prepare for just such a threat.

"The potential threat of asteroids and other Near Earth Objects to our
planet is an international problem requiring international action," said the
Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury.

The government said it would review Britain's telescope facilities to
improve monitoring of space objects, set up a facility to provide
information on Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and prepare emergency evacuation

"Clearly, if it is not a large [object], there is always a possibility of
moving people from the area it is going to hit on the Earth, and we do
potentially have the opportunity to deflect it," Lord Sainsbury told the
British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC).

Near Earth Objects are asteroids and comets, traveling through space at
between 10 and 20 miles (16 and 32 kilometers) per second, whose orbit
brings them close to our planet. While objects less than 50 yards (meters)
in diameter burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, bigger ones strike the
planet's surface about once a century.

Experts estimate that large asteroids capable of devastating a region, or
even the planet, strike Earth about once every 100,000 years.

One impact off the coast of what is now Mexico 65 million years ago is
thought to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Another impact in
1908 in Siberia set of shock waves that leveled trees over hundreds of
square miles (kilometers).

A report last year by a government commissioned panel of scientists called
for Britain to contribute to an international effort to counter asteroid

Sainsbury said Britain would consult with the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development, as well as the European Space Agency on ways to
combat the menace.

Liberal Democrat lawmaker Lembit Opik, who has waged a long campaign for the
asteroid threat to be taken seriously, said he was encouraged by the

"I thank Lord Sainsbury for his willingness to take this project forward.
Because he has listened to our campaign for action on cosmic impact, the end
of the world might not be nigh after all," Opik told the BBC.

Copyright 2001, AP


From Jay Tate <>

Dear Benny,

Having read Alan Fitzsimmons letter of yesterday I find much contained
therein with which to agree, but this would be the first time that I have
been accused of pessimism!

The government has certainly undertaken to raise the issue with other
European governments through various routes, but where do those routes lead?
The past six months of government consideration seem to have produced little
European or international enthusiasm, so what has been going on?

I also agree that it is hardly surprising that the government would not be
willing to announce a big pot of cash for telescopes on Saturday without
careful consideration. Well, they had a Task Force to look at the problem,
and then six months to look at what to do about it.  Even the Army can make
decisions in that time! PPARC could have been tasked with providing costings
and done so in half a year.

The question of the NEO Centre is quite baffling. Costings were provided to
the DTI and the BNSC over a year ago, and were minimal in the great scheme
of things. Again, how long does the government need to make a decision? In
the absence of government action, as you know, the little people are going
to do it themselves.

I totally agree with Alan that we are much better off now than we were 2
years ago. Heck, we didn't have Lembit Opik on board then! The future, in
the long term, may well be rosy, but the short and medium term are to be
filled with more committees and "discussions". Talking never discovered an

The bottom line is that, with the noble few exceptions known to us all, I
see an amazing lack of support from the astronomical community for a project
that has, unlike most, a direct relevance and appeal to the general public
who, after all, pay the wages. I wonder why? It can't be ignorance, I
sincerely hope it isn't a case of "I want that money for my pet project", so
what can it be?  Without more support from the likes of PPARC and the BNSC,
the Spaceguard project will end up dead in the water, killed by endless
tittle-tattle. That would be a case of gross negligence of the highest

All in all we are better off now than 2 years ago, but I do not believe that
we are better off than we were six months ago. Then, with a recently
published report that gripped the world, it looked like the UK was going to
make a giant leap to lead the world in NEO studies while the rest of the
globe watched and wondered. Now the momentum is in danger of being lost, the
public will get bored (over my dead body!) and the whole thing could easily
sink into a morass of bureaucracy (or so, it appears, some wish.)

So, am I disappointed? You bet. It seemed for a moment that we had a
government willing to make a simple decision. Ha. Am I pessimistic? No. In
the long term, the government will have to do something.  Hopefully we won't
have to wait for the next "Tunguska". The Spaceguard Centre will continue
the work of Spaceguard UK, but much more! The public is going to be told
about the impact hazard - not exaggerated or sensationalised, but in the
context of other astronomical research, other hazards and the great scheme
of things. My experience is that once informed, Joe Public gets quite
excited about dinosaurs, big explosions, craters and things. And Joe Public
pays taxes that fund research, the government and academia; and Joe Public

All the best

Jay Tate


From Michael Martin-Smith <>

Dear Benny,

I think the Government's response to the Task Force response, although short
on actual commitments, nevertheless, when taken also with the establishment
of a centre for Astrobiology, represents probably unintentionally a major
crossing of the Rubicon -  the "giggle factor" is now definitely behind us;
in commissioning the Task Force at all, and in accepting its findings,
albeit only intellectually, they will have to engage with the findings of
scientists who will continue to study the issues. The other dimension -
winning the hearts and minds of an articulate section of the public - is now
more important than ever, and the Government's response can be taken in
evidence of the validity of our concerns - since they have NOT laughed them

I believe , in time, that the viewpoints I have propounded below will gain
ground - not least since I have now gained some publicity in, of all places
The Journal of the Institute of Humanistic Judaism, the British Medical
Journal (albeit the website version only,) and the Nursing Times - inter
alia. There is much to be done, but the book I allude to below offers a
great opportunity to take our campaign out to much wider circles.

Two letters sent to various publications follow

Eros and Destiny

There have been many "invasions" from Space , by  meteorites and comets. We
know that these invasions  can be spectacularly deadly; indeed, for all our
guilt-ridden concern about the Environment, the ultimate threat  is waiting
out in Space to fall upon us on some future day. Earth's animal inhabitants
have perished in many such invasions. On Feb 12. 2001 the tables were
turned. The NEAR spacecraft landed on Asteroid Eros 433. The intention is to
learn  its consistency  - is it a solid object or loose debris?

This is  not academic - many schemes for deflecting an asteroid are proposed
- for example a nuclear bomb sent to  nudge it off course. If  potential
"visitors" are spongy - only  futuristic space based deflection will
suffice; the bonus is that these will be easier to mine for the exploitation
of space industries; Japan  has  proposed building solar power stations in
Space bringing us non-polluting renewable energy.

A second step was the addition of the  "Destiny" lab to the International
Space Station;  providing research and living facilities in orbit, Destiny
is a next step towards the ultimate dream of  building a  dispersed human
civilization in Space. We are the only terrestrial species capable of
deliberately avoiding extinction - Earthbound suicide is now becoming
unnecessary, and so unethical.

A Discovery Anticipated?

On Thursday 22nd the  discovery was announced that the Permian Mass
Extinction Event, like the Cretaceous catastrophe 150 million years later,
was after all due to an impact by a 7 miles diameter comet; in addition it
was pointed out that this impact, in triggering the Siberian Traps volcanic
eruptions, would have inflicted a double whammy on the unfortunate Permian
life-forms. Many geologists for their part have held to the view that the
Siberian Traps were the true culprit, that the Deccan Traps in Southern
India were likewise the true exterminators of the dinosaurs and that the
impact at Chixculub was a "red herring" in the absence of evidence for a
Permian impact event.

Last year in May/June's issues of the UK Journal "Geology Today" I proposed
that the astronomers and geologists could be reconciled by a new syncretic
view in which cosmic impacts result if subsurface Earth waves which are
focussed at the antipodal site, and that if the circumstances were right in
the magma layer, volcanic upwellings and traps would result. I expressed the
hope  that evidence would be found for a Permian impact event, despite the
fact that the antipodal site to the Siberian Traps would be under
present-day oceans.

I named this the "Bullet Theory" by analogy with the wellknown finding of
pathologists and forensic ballistics that a high velocity bullet hitting a
human head leaves its greatest devastation at the site directly opposite to
the point of entry.

My conclusions from all this, that if Humanity is to earn its name Homo
Sapiens it must take steps to be well dispersed long before such an event
threatens to ruin our day, is described clearly for the layman in my book
"Man Medicine and Space" at

It is always nice to have been ahead of one's time - but this will only have
real value if the appropriate lessons are learned and are translated into

Yours sincerely
Dr Michael Martin-Smith, physician, amateur astronomer, and author


From Der Spiegel, 26 February 2001,1518,119826,00.html

[Researcher expects 20 million deaths from asteroid impacts in the next
10,000 years]

"If we don't plan ahead and develop technologies to defend our civilisation
against large impacts, cosmic disasters will be inevitable and will lead to
massive destruction, Peiser said. He called upon the German Government to
support the British initiative for a European asteroid and planetary defence

Ein britischer Katastrophenforscher prognostiziert eine alarmierende Häufung
von Asteroideneinschlägen für die nächsten 10.000 Jahre. Schon ein einziger
Absturz könnte hunderttausende Menschenleben fordern.

Hamburg - Benny Peiser ist Kulturanthropologe, Historiker und lehrt an der
John Moores University in Liverpool. Wie SPIEGEL TV am Montag vorab
berichtete, erwartet der Katastrophenforscher für die nächsten 10.000 Jahre
vier massive Einschläge größerer Himmelskörper an Land und zwölf im Meer.

Durch solche Einschläge von Asteroiden und Klein-Kometen würden insgesamt
etwa 20 Millionen Menschen ums Leben kommen. Peiser beruft sich bei seiner
Schätzung auf eine Analyse von rund 500 Einschlägen außerirdischen Materials
in den letzten 10.000 Jahren auf der Erde. Voraussetzung der Prognose sei
die Fortsetzung der kosmischen Aktivität auf gleichbleibendem Niveau bei
einer Erdbevölkerung von rund fünf Milliarden Menschen.

Und nicht nur die großen Einschläge würden Flutwellen auslösen und schwerste
Zerstörungen anrichten - Peiser erwartet mindestens 300 weitere Einschläge
des "Tunguska-Typs". Am 30. Juni 1908 war über der sibirischen
Tunguska-Region ein rund 50 Meter großer Asteroid in die Erdatmosphäre
eingedrungen und mit der Kraft von über 2000 Hiroshima-Atombomben
explodiert. Er verwüstete über 2000 Quadratkilometer Land.
"Wenn wir nicht im voraus planen und Technologien zur Abwehr der Bedrohung
unserer Zivilisation durch große Einschläge entwickeln, werden kosmische
Katastrophen unausweichlich sein und zu ungeahnten Zerstörungen führen",
meinte Peiser und forderte die Bundesregierung auf, die Initiative
Großbritanniens zur Etablierung einer europäischen Asteroiden- und
Abwehrstrategie zu unterstützen.

Der so apokalyptisch mahnende Katastrophenforscher ist Mitglied der
Königlichen Astronomischen Gesellschaft und Sprecher von Spaceguard UK. Die
Internationale Astronomische Union ehrte ihn kürzlich mit der Benennung
eines zehn Kilometer großen Asteroiden, Minor Planet (7107) Peiser.

Copyright 2001, Der Spiegel

See also German press agency story at:


From Scientific American, 26 February 2001

Hurtling toward the sun at nearly a million kilometers an hour, Comet C/2001
C2 (SOHO) met with a fiery death in February-but not before instruments on
NASA's SOHO spacecraft captured the kamikaze streaker on film. Spotted
earlier this month by comet hunters in Germany and China who accessed the
images via the Internet, C/2001 C2 (SOHO) is one of nearly 300 comets SOHO
has discovered since 1996. Like most of the others, this latest comet
belonged to a family of "sungrazers" that scientists believe were once part
of a large comet that fragmented long ago.

Both SOHO's visible light coronagraph, LASCO, and its ultraviolet
coronagraph, UVCS, observed the comet. In the picture at the right, two of
the UVCS images are shown superimposed on a LASCO image. The first UVCS
image, taken when the comet's head was 2.7 million kilometers from the sun's
surface, shows the comet's broad, well-defined gas tail, reaching more than
half a million kilometers in length. In the second UVCS image, taken an hour
later, the comet's head is 1.6 million kilometers from the sun, and the
comet appears to be flying in a region of significantly higher solar wind

The ultraviolet light in these pictures comes from hydrogen atoms formed
during the breakup of water vapor released from the comet by the heat of the
sun. Estimates based on these pictures indicate that C-201 C2 (SOHO) was
giving off steam at about 100 kilograms per second and that its nucleus was
only 10 to 20 meters across. Larger objects, such as Halley's Comet, in
contrast, feature nuclei measured in kilometers. -Kate Wong

Copyright 2001, Scientific American


From Andrew Yee <>

Kathleen Burton
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA          Feb. 26, 2001
(Phone: 650/604-1371)



An international team of researchers has discovered compelling evidence that
the magnetite crystals in the martian meteorite ALH84001 are of biological

The researchers found that the magnetite crystals embedded in the meteorite
are arranged in long chains, which they say could have been formed only by
once-living organisms. Their results are reported in the Feb. 27 Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The chains we discovered are of biological origin," said Dr. Imre
Friedmann, an NRC senior research fellow at NASA's Ames Research Center in
California's Silicon Valley and leader of the research team. "Such a chain
of magnets outside an organism would immediately collapse into a clump due
to magnetic forces," he said.

The chains were formed inside organic material whose structure held the
crystals together. "The end result looks somewhat like a string of pearls,"
Friedmann noted. Each magnetite crystal in the chain is a tiny magnet,
approximately one-millionth of an inch in diameter. Magnetite is an iron
oxide, similar to iron rust.

The chains may have served as 'compasses' for the host magnetotactic
bacteria, so named because they navigate with the help of the magnetic
crystal chains inside their bodies. The chains were preserved in the
meteorite long after the bacteria themselves decayed.

The researchers say the magnetite chains probably were flushed into
microscopic cracks inside the martian rock after it was shattered by an
asteroid impact approximately 3.9 billion years ago. This cataclysmic event
on Mars' surface also may have killed the bacteria. The same, or a later,
asteroid impact ejected the rock, now a meteorite, into space.

Another NASA research group, led by Kathie Thomas-Keprta of NASA's Johnson
Space Center, report in the same issue of PNAS that the magnetite crystals
inside the meteorite are similar to those formed by 'modern' magnetotactic
bacteria now living on Earth. The team studied only single crystals,
however, not the elusive chain-like structures.

Friedmann's team discovered the crystal chains using a technique that
enabled them to 'see' the tiny chains inside the meteorite without
destroying them. Besides the chain-like formation, the team discovered that
individual crystals are of similar size and shape, do not touch each other
and that the chains themselves are flexible, further evidence of biological

"Until now, studying life has been like trying to draw a curve using only
one data point -- life on Earth," said Friedmann. "Now we have two data
points to draw life's curve."  The next step is to find the remains of the
bacteria themselves, he said.

The fact that a small (about 4-pound) meteorite from a planet contains large
numbers of bacteria suggests that such bacteria were widespread on the
surface of Mars, the researchers say. A stone of similar size from Earth
would contain many bacteria.

In addition, since magnetotactic bacteria require low levels of oxygen, this
finding indicates that photosynthetic organisms, the source of oxygen in the
atmosphere, must have been present and active on Mars 3.9 billion years ago.

"Finding evidence of life on Mars is one of the central problems in
astrobiology research today," said Dr. Michael Meyer, head of NASA's
astrobiology program, which funded the research.

In addition to his fellowship at NASA Ames, Friedmann, who is best known for
discovering microorganisms living inside desert rocks, is professor emeritus
of biological science at Florida State University. Members of the research
team include Dr. Jacek Wierzchos (University of Lleida, Spain), Dr. Carmen
Ascaso (CSIC, Madrid, Spain), and Dr. Michael Winkelhofer (University of
Munich, Germany).

The meteorite ALH84001 was found in the Allen Hills region of Antarctica in
1984 by researchers supported by the National Science Foundation's Antarctic
Search for Meteorites Program, a joint effort by the NSF, the Smithsonian
Instituttion and NASA.  The Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland
manages the program.

Full text of the research paper is available at

Images of the magnetite chains inside the ALH84001 meteorite and, for
comparison, inside a modern magnetotactic bacterium are at

Ames Research Center is NASA's lead center for astrobiology, the study of
the origin, evolution, dissemination and future of life in the universe.
NASA Ames is the location of the central offices of the NASA Astrobiology
Institute, an international research consortium.


From Andrew Yee <>

Catherine E. Watson
Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX February 26, 2001
(Phone: 281/483-5111)

Release: J01-20


Researchers who stunned the world in 1996 with the announcement that a
Martian meteorite contained evidence of ancient life on the red planet have
released new evidence that strengthens their original hypothesis and allays
many of the criticisms leveled at the first paper.

In this latest paper, published in the scientific journal Precambrian
Research Feb. 17, two additional Martian meteorites were examined -- Nakhla
and Shergotty, 1.3 billion and 165 to 175 million years old, respectively.
Both younger meteorites showed the same evidence of microfossils and other
remnants of early life as the original meteorite, the 4.5-billion-year-old
ALH84001. "If the features observed in the two younger Martian meteorites
are confirmed to have a biogenic origin, life may have existed on Mars from
3.9 billion years ago to as recently as 165 to 175 million years ago," said
Everett K. Gibson, a geochemist at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston
and the senior author on the paper.

Clusters of very small spheres found in the two younger meteorites are very
similar to those seen in bacteria-containing samples from deep beneath the
Earth's surface in the Columbia River Basalts in eastern Washington. Whether
or not these sphere-like structures are true biomarkers has yet to be
determined, but the fact that they are embedded in or coated by clays that
are clearly of Martian origin suggests that they too were formed on Mars.

Studies using a transmission electron microscope have provided further
evidence of fossils in the original Martian meteorite, ALH84001. This
evidence is in the form of tiny magnetite crystals, identical to those used
by aqueous bacteria on Earth as compasses to find food and energy.
Magnetite (Fe3O4) is produced inorganically on Earth, but the magnetite
crystals produced by magnetotactic bacteria are different -- they are
chemically pure and defect-free, with a distinct size and shape.
Magnetotactic bacteria arrange these magnetite crystals in chains within
their cells.

Additional studies showed that a substantial portion of the hydrocarbons
found in the meteorites were in them when they left Mars and are not the
result of terrestrial contamination. There is also strong evidence that most
of the carbonates in all three meteorites was formed at a time when Mars was
warmer and wetter -- an environment much more conducive to life than the
current surface of Mars.

Terrestrial contamination of extraterrestrial samples is an issue not only
with these meteorites, according to the authors, but one that is being
studied in relation to the future return of Martian samples to Earth. "It's
clear that we need to better understand the biosignatures
of terrestrial and extraterrestrial samples so that when Martian samples are
eventually brought back to Earth, we can determine the presences or absence
of life with certainty," Gibson said. "However, if water exists beneath the
Martian surface, why shouldn't life be present today on Mars?"

The other authors of this work, which was funded by NASA's Exobiology
Program and NASA's Astrobiology Institute, are David S. McKay of JSC; Kathie
L. Thomas-Keprta, Susan J. Wentworth, and Mary Sue Bell of Lockheed Martin
at JSC; Frances Westall, a National Research Council Fellow at the Lunar &
Planetary Institute in Houston; Andrew Steele and Jan Toporski of the
University of Portsmouth, England; and Christopher S. Romanek of the
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Of these, Gibson, McKay, Thomas-Keprta
and Romanek were authors of the original paper on the subject.

For a more technical discussion of this paper please see the following Web


From Ron Baalke <>

A Conversation With Bobby Williams, NEAR Navigation Chief

Space history was made on February 12, 2001 when NASA's NEAR spacecraft
became the first craft to land on an asteroid. What makes this landing even
more exceptional is that NEAR, managed by the Applied Physics Lab at Johns
Hopkins University, was not built to withstand a landing; its mission was to
orbit asteroid Eros and study the slow-moving rock from a distance. However,
with its main mission successfully completed, scientists thought they could
attempt an asteroid landing.

It fell to NEAR's navigation team, based at JPL, to bring the craft in for a
semi-smooth landing. As the rendezvous drew closer, the JPL team had to
quickly crunch numbers to calculate the craft's path as it plunged toward
Eros and relay commands back to NEAR to give it the best landing possible.
Bobby Williams, the head of the navigation team, talks about the pressure on
that eventful Monday morning.


Q: What was the asteroid landing like?
A: The days leading up to it were pretty chaotic. On Monday we got a really
early start at 2 am. Al Hewitt, the network operations person for the Deep
Space Network (the telecommunications system which talks to spacecraft),
called to say that the predictions for NEAR's arrival at Eros we had sent
weren't working. So we had an immediate panic attack

Pete Antreasian and Steve Chesley were waiting at their keyboards when the
numbers were made available, they then started processing. We were on a very
tight time schedule to get the number "how much earlier or later are we?" We
did that with a couple minutes to spare.

We found that it was 17 seconds late. We bumped the spacecraft's clock back
to correct for the change and the spacecraft got to live 17 seconds over
again. We believe that made the difference - that if we hadn't adjusted it,
it may have mapped a much bigger error on the ground. So that was the big
push-up for the morning.

We had to have pictures taken that were immediately downlinked which not
only required us to be on our toes, the spacecraft had to be officially set
up to do that. So it all worked -- the pictures got down and a few moments
after they were taken, downlinked.

Q: How did the team feel?
A: The day before we touched down there was a lot of fatigue: we'd been
working pretty hard for the past month. Monday morning, all the fatigue
drained away. Everybody was pretty excited. It was the culmination of all
that hard work. It was like going in for your final exam, and you know
you'll get an A and you feel really good when you come out.

Q: What makes a good team, especially in the face of doing an unprecedented
maneuver like the landing?
A: We didn't over-train; we didn't have a lot of blow-by blow simulation.
That makes everybody tired. My approach is always: lay it all out, simulate
little parts of it so that everybody knows what they have to do. They're
smart people! We rely on their own innate abilities and their training, and
I think people respond to that.

Q: What will the first small body landing on an asteroid teach us about
future landings?
A: The fact that NEAR was able to land with no landing apparatus on the
spacecraft means that now they don't have to over-design any kind of landing
apparatus on one that's actually designed to land. We were extremely lucky
not to hit a rock or boulder and knock a solar array off. You wouldn't want
that on a planned landing, where you have to take off again, or drop off a
rover. But now we know that we can survive an impact. In that sense we've
set the boundary; we know what the design constraints would be for a real
lander on an asteroid or comet.

Q: From the navigation point of view, what are the problems of landing on a
small body and how do you solve them?
A: For asteroids we know now that the key to landing is the models, like the
gravity fields and the solar pressure on the spacecraft. Because we had
those models fairly well-estimated, landing was a matter of planning and
using those models.

We found you can't just arrive and land immediately, like we do at Mars. For
a small body that's impractical, because you need to know the gravity, you
need to know the mass, and you can't estimate those things until you get

Q: What is the NEAR navigation team's future?
A: One important element is that we do navigation for many different
missions. Almost all of my group has only worked part-time on NEAR. We're
used to working more than one mission. We have a couple people going to
other Discovery missions for the Applied Physics Lab, the CONTOUR mission,
which flies by at least two comets, and the Messenger mission, which goes to

You can email your questions to Bobby Williams at


From Ron Baalke <>

Naked-Eye Comet Possible for Christmas 2001
By Robert Roy Britt
26 February 2001

A comet detected three months ago is ambling toward the inner solar system
and could be visible to the naked eye late this year, possibly providing the
best comet show since Hale-Bopp in 1997. Tickets to the show should be
popular, as the comet threatens to make its apparition a one-time

The comet was first thought to be an asteroid when it was spotted Nov. 16,
2000 by researchers at the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research
project (LINEAR). It was later identified as a comet and given the official
designation of 2000 WM1. Scientists are referring to it as Comet LINEAR, but
it is different from the comet 1999 S4, also called Comet LINEAR, which
broke apart late in the summer of 2000.

"Although no comet can be relied upon completely, there is a very good
chance that [this comet] will be a naked-eye Christmas comet for 2001," says
astronomer Mark Kidger.

Full story here:


From Andrew Yee <>

Hi Benny,

Here's an interesting article in today's TIMES OF LONDON.  But there is a
mystery: the person cited in the first paragraph, "Donald Braben", cannot be
found in the University College London's physics dept. directory!  A search
through the UCL website also failed to find this person.

If this person doesn't exist, I can see why NATURE and SCIENCE won't publish
the letter since its authenticity cannot be verified.  Does it mean that
this is sloppy journalism on the part of the TIMES OF LONDON?

[addendum: He be here mit pic @ bobk]
[From Monday, February 26, 2001 Times of London,,,74-90352,00.html]

Where is the next Einstein?

A band of influential scientists is warning that genius is being stifled by
populism. Nobody seems to be listening.


What has happened to the lone genius making genuine scientific
breakthroughs? He has been squeezed out in the fashion for blockbuster
projects such as sequencing the human genome. That is the verdict of Donald
Braben, a physics professor at University College London and a former ideas
scout for BP, who has submitted a warning letter to the two top
international research journals, Nature and Science.

Despite boasting a score of signatures from respected academics, including
the Nobel laureates Sir Harry Kroto, a chemist at Sussex University, and
Dudley Herschbach, a chemist at Harvard University, the letter has been
rejected by both weeklies. Refusal to publish may have left Braben annoyed
but he should not find it surprising. After all, the letter takes aim at
peer review, the method by which new research is assessed, absorbed and
disseminated within the scientific community. While peer review works most
of the time, Braben says, it militates against those harbouring original,
even revolutionary, ideas. Yet it is these ideas -- lonely furrows ploughed
by brilliant individuals against the mainstream -- that change science, spur
new technologies and create wealth. Examples include the laser, the
transistor and the deduction of the structure of DNA.

Braben and others with similar concerns, including Save British Science
[ ], want to set up a forum to encourage and
fund radical scientists. About $50 billion (£35 billion) is spent on basic
research worldwide; they suggest setting aside $20 million, or 0.04 per cent
of the total, to fund promising radicals.

The letter states: "All too often today, the academic research environment
favours objectives selected by consensus ... pioneers and consensus can be
poor bedfellows initially, and so peer review often fails." The signatories
give a warning: "This is one of the most serious problems sfacing

Braben maintains that without such a provocative stand the next Einstein may
languish in obscurity. "We need people like the Einsteins, the Newtons, who
can stand back and ask how everything fits together," Braben says. "These
are the people who lift our eyes above the horizon, who open up new vistas,
create new types of understanding. When was the last time we had a real
scientific breakthrough?" The vogue for expensive collaborative projects,
Braben says, leaves no space or money for alternative thinkers whose
research appears initially irrelevant but who may come up with stunning
work. As a result, advances in the past two or three decades have been
increments rather than leaps.

He cites the Human Genome Project as an example. "Sequencing the human
genome is by no means the most important challenge in biology," Braben
asserts. "It was done because it was possible to do it. I'm not saying it
was a waste of money, but we don't understand the context of the genome. We
don't know how those genes express (make proteins). People say there is
'junk DNA', which means they don't understand what it's for." In other
words, decoding DNA was an expensive information-collecting exercise with
little direct impact on either science or healthcare.

Professor Lee Smolin, a visiting professor of physics at Imperial College in
London, agrees that young people find it difficult to explore fresh topics
because of the expectation that they will join a large collaborative effort.
"It's true that most of the really original work is done by individual
scientists," Smolin says. "But young people feel pressure to work on topics
that are popular because it will help their career. It's very pervasive. But
many have a strong character and do survive, although they maybe don't have
as prestigious a career as their peers. That's a terrible shame. It's hard
to imagine someone following the footsteps of people such as Roger Penrose,
who has done pretty much what he wanted to."

Smolin has noted an intriguing trend -- some hard-up creative minds are
relying on private patronage from, for example, wealthy science-minded
entrepreneurs. It is a good match -- entrepreneurs who have taken risks
themselves have the cash and inclination to encourage kindred spirits. An
example is the Perimeter Institute (PI)
[ ], a C$100 million (£43 million)
theoretical physics institute being set up near Toronto, funded by the
Canadian businessman Mike Lazaridis. The entrepreneur is recruiting
physicists known for their daring ideas.

Sir Robert May, the president of the Royal Society and former chief science
adviser to the Government, says he would have published the letter. Not
because he necessarily agrees with it, but because the debate it provokes is

"In short, I thoroughly agree that in trying to manage creativity, we can
lapse into the hands of bureaucrats and squeeze out the risk-takers," he
says. "But if you look at the facts, this hasn't happened. Britain comes top
of the league in measures of performance such as citations of scientific
papers and patents."

Sir Robert points out that the Royal Society awards fellowships to hundreds
of brilliant minds to allow them to pursue whatever research they want to
do, at whichever institute they choose. The money frees them from all but
the most minimal teaching duties. Sir Robert adds: "I believe the best
people should be free to set their own agenda but that some people should
work within broadly directed research." Otherwise, he says, they spend their
lives "elaborating on their PhDs".

Like most people, Sir Robert wants the best of both worlds -- to have
research that bears commerical fruit while toiling at the frontiers. The
problem with funding what Braben calls "credible heretics" at the frontier
is that results can be unpredictable. Braben, however, believes from his
experience as an ideas scout that truly original thought will out itself.
Between 1980 and 1990 he ran Venture Research, a BP-funded effort to
identify big ideas that merited funding but could not attract it from
conventional sources, such as the research
councils. Ten thousand applications were whittled down to 26, with the
scientists themselves asked to judge the originality of ideas. "We rarely
had complaints from people we turned down, because they could see what we
were looking for," says Braben. "It became a process of self-selection. As a
result, the proposals that did get through were electrifying."

An example was a project to discover the structure of the cell nucleus in
plants. Even though the petroleum company was not looking for returns,
Braben estimates that BP's total investment of about £25 million has
generated some £300 million: Braben, once a government science adviser, now
runs his own outfit called Venture Research International, based in Essex.
Sadly, the company has struggled to win money to fund daring research.

"Investors want to see what their money is being used for. But although we
can promise research of the highest quality, it is difficult to say what is
going to come out of it.

"The problem is that scientists doing these kinds of projects are entering
intellectual greenfield sites. If really clever scientists are asking
questions that nobody has asked before, they can't avoid making big
discoveries. They simply can't fail."

Braben adds that it is not necessarily money that is at issue, but time.
Innovation does not have to be costly. "Before the Sixties and Seventies and
the rigid application of peer review, scientists could do anything they
wanted with the little money they could get hold of," he reminisces. "That's
the way it should be."

Donald Braben can be contacted at .

Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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