Priority: Normal
From: JR Tate <>
Subject: Article in "Quest" Magazine
Date sent: Sat, 22 Mar 97 20:26:34 GMT

The following article will appear in the next issue of QUEST magazine. It may
be of some interest to some of you.


In the February issue of AA&ES Duncan Steel described the threat posed to
humankind by asteroid and comet impacts. If the evidence of danger is so
clear, why is so little being done about it? After a year of campaigning for
some action it has become clear that there is no single reason, but all or
some of the following will probably be put forward:

What threat ?

Although the possibility that comets might hit the Earth was discussed as far
back as the late 17th century (by Sir Edmund Halley), the scientific world's
attention was really caught by the publication, in 1980, of a paper entitled
"Extraterrestrial Cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction," by Louis and
Walter Alvarez. The paper linked the sudden extinction of about 80% of all
species on Earth, including the dinosaurs, with the impact of a ten-kilometre
diameter body sixty-five million years ago. Since then there has been an
increasing amount of research into the Near Earth Objects (NEO’s), and it has
become clear that the question of future impacts is not one of "if", but

Historical Inertia

Ancient man was convinced that cosmic forces significantly influenced his
everyday life. This conviction is clearly demonstrated in the myths and
tales of conflict and disaster meted out from the skies, usually by "gods".
This catastrophist view of the cosmos held sway until the Age of Reason when
Newton transformed the hostile and unpredictable universe into a benign,
mechanical system and Darwin introduced the concept of gradual evolution over
extended timescales. In the resulting predictable, gradualist cosmos there
was no place for catastrophism or sudden change.
Since the late 1980’s the realisation that Darwinian evolution has almost
certainly been punctuated by catastrophic events is causing a major rethink
of many cherished paradigms.

Nothing can be done, so why worry?

Until the advent of the space age mankind was helpless in the face of cosmic
bombardment, so there was little point in worrying about it. However,
advances in technology over the past three decades have changed everything.
Modern telescopes allow us to detect and track faint NEO’s, while current
spacecraft technology gives us the ability to intercept threatening objects.
We are nearly ready to deal with the problem.

How much would it cost?

Planetary defence programmes will cost money. However, planetary defence is
too low on anybody’s priority list for action. This is due to a lack of
appreciation of the threat and the perception that other contingencies are
more important. For example, UK government spent ,600 million to increase
the statistical interval between "significant events" at the Sizewell B
nuclear installation from one hundred thousand years to ten million years. A
"significant event" in this context would result in a few hundred fatal
casualties. A globally threatening impact event, killing a quarter of the
world’s population can be expected on time scales ten to a hundred times
shorter than this.
The estimated cost of doing nothing is about ,100 million per year, which
represents the probable global cost of a comet or asteroid impact spread over
the likely time interval between such events.

It’s not my problem.

The evidence for past catastrophic events, and the inevitability of another
are matters of fact, but who should be responsible for doing anything about
it? Planetary Defence is a multi-disciplinary undertaking; astronomers have
been at the forefront of the search for NEO’s, but planetary scientists,
geologists, palaeontologists, biologists, physicists and others have been
deeply involved in piecing together the whole picture. But is the problem
strictly scientific? To study asteroids and comets the scientist only needs
to study a representative sample, whereas a planetary defence programme would
have to find them all. The funding required to detect and track all NEO’s
can hardly be justified on strictly scientific grounds.
Defence is the prerogative of the military, but there is resistance from the
defence community to becoming involved in planetary defence. A notable
exception is in the United States where the Air Force has been given the task
of co-ordinating planetary defence efforts. Elsewhere weak excuses hide the
real reason - money. Defence budgets are stretched to the limit without
introducing a new drain on already scarce resources. Governments must decide
sooner or later - preferably before the event.
Within the scientific community there is still some disagreement over the
extent of the threat. However, few would dispute the possibility of a
significant threat, and, given the likely consequences, it is hardly
justifiable to oppose programmes to assess the problem; that would be playing
dice with the survival of the human species.
Some scientists oppose research into the NEO’s on the grounds that it might
divert funding from their particular fields. This is perfectly
understandable from a narrow perspective, but is an abrogation of science’s
responsibility to humankind.

Finally, the subject of planetary defence has suffered from a
substantial "giggle factor" along with SETI (unjustifiably) and UFO studies
(questionably), and many scientists have been unwilling to be associated with
such work. This situation has changed radically over the past decade, and
"small body" science is now a respectable field of study.

Arthur C Clarke and Patrick Moore have both kindly agreed to become Trustee
members of Spaceguard UK, and Associate members so far include Professor Mark
Bailey, the director of the Armagh Observatory, Dr Bill Napier, Dr Victor
Clube and Dr Duncan Steel. SPACEGUARD UK is affiliated with the international
Spaceguard Foundation, and anyone interested in the subject of NEO’s is very
welcome to join. Details of how to contact us are at the end of the Charter



The threat posed to mankind by the impact of an asteroid or comet is now
widely recognised as one of the most significant risks to human civilisation,
yet there is no co-ordinated international effort to identify threatening
Near Earth Objects (NEO’s) or to deal with them once detected. The United
Kingdom has unique intellectual and physical resources that could put the
nation at the forefront of any international Planetary Defence programme.
Spaceguard UK is an organisation dedicated to the promotion of such a
programme, and UK participation therein.

Over the past decade or so it has become apparent that asteroidal and
cometary impacts have played a dramatic, possibly leading role in the
development of this planet, and the evolution of life. Natural Science is in
the throes of a revolution in thinking, akin to that which occurred after the
publication of Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural
Selection". With this understanding comes the realisation that there is no
reason to believe that this extraterrestrial influence is at an end, and the
possibility that a major impact could severely disrupt, or even destroy our
current way of life on a global scale is one to be considered seriously.

As a result of this ongoing research there is a growing international
movement dedicated to quantifying and assessing the risk, and to determining
methods of avoiding threatening impacts. While the subject has traditionally
suffered from a great deal of scepticism this attitude is now generally seen
as archaic, and the matter has become one of serious research. The leading
institution involved internationally is the Rome based Spaceguard Foundation.


Spaceguard UK has been established to pursue the following aims:

To promote and encourage British activities involving the discovery
and follow-up observations of Near Earth Objects.

To promote the study of the physical and dynamic properties of
asteroids and comets, with particular emphasis on Near Earth Objects.

To promote the establishment of an international, ground based
surveillance network (the Spaceguard Project) for the discovery, observation
and follow-up study of Near Earth Objects.

To provide a national United Kingdom information service to raise
public awareness of the Near Earth Object threat, and to increase confidence
in the technology available to predict and avoid dangerous impacts.


Spaceguard UK is affiliated with the international Spaceguard Foundation.
The Aims of Spaceguard UK are fully harmonised with those of the Foundation,
and the activities of Spaceguard UK are intended in no way to detract from
those of the Foundation; they are intended to support and complement them,
with a specific bias towards the situation as it pertains to the United
Kingdom. Details of the Spaceguard Foundation, its aims, by-laws and
membership can be obtained from The Spaceguard Foundation or from Spaceguard


There are three types of Spaceguard UK membership:

Trustee Members

Trustee Members will be those individuals who have made outstanding
contributions in the field of NEO studies, or who have special qualifications
that enable them to significantly further the aims of Spaceguard UK. Trustee
Members will be invited to join Spaceguard UK.

Associate Membership

Associate Members will be those currently involved in activities or studies
related to the NEO Impact Threat, and who will form a core of
multi-disciplinary expertise in the subject. The role of the Associate
Members will include the provision of expert advice to the general
membership, and to other bodies as deemed necessary. Associate Members will
be invited to join Spaceguard UK.

General Membership

General Membership is open to any individual with an interest in the subject
of the NEO Impact Threat. Applicants are invited to contact Spaceguard UK
with a brief statement of their interest, and any relevant qualifications
that might be of use or interest to other members.

Membership of the Spaceguard Foundation automatically entitles an individual
or organisation to membership of Spaceguard UK.

Financial Statement

Spaceguard UK is a non-profit making organisation, committed to the
acquisition and dissemination of information and, when circumstances require,
acting as a catalyst for action. Initially, be no membership fees or
financial commitments. Should this status change in the future, all members
will be informed at least three months prior to the change.

Should Spaceguard UK receive any income in the future, from sponsors or
through membership fees, a negotiated proportion of any such income will be
donated to the Spaceguard Foundation.


Members of Spaceguard UK have already been active in promoting the assessment
of the UK’s contribution to the international NEO detection effort. The
recent, well publicised meeting at the British National Space Centre on 12th
November 1996 was precipitated by the activities of the organisation. The
subject of the NEO threat has moved from the realm of a handful of experts to
the corridors of the House of Commons and the British media in less than nine

Current activities are concentrated on ensuring that the consensus achieved
at the BNSC meeting is transformed into meaningful action by the British
government and organisations world-wide.

For further information on Spaceguard UK, please contact:

J.R. Tate
35 Pownall Road
Larkhill, Salisbury
Wiltshire SP4 8LX

Tel: 01980 653634

The Spaceguard UK Home Page can be found at:


I shall be away for the next week or so at the US Air Force Space
Command/NASA Clementine II Science Meeting which is to include discussions on
the NEO threat. Please bear with me if my replies are a little delayed!

Jay Tate


Subject: "Fire from the Sky" web page
Date sent: Sat, 22 Mar 1997 04:58:37 -0600 (CST)

There is a web page about the upcoming TBS documentary "Fire from the Sky"


Subject: Serpent Mound, Ohio
Date sent: Sat, 22 Mar 1997 04:26:02 -0600 (CST)

Below is the text of a UPI story discussing new ideas about the
origin of Serpent Mound, a Native American site located in Ohio
in the United States. I am intrigued by the suggestions that
the serpent represents the tail of Comet Halley in 1066 A.D.

For those not familiar with this site, Serpent Mound is probably
the finest (and largest!) serpent effigy in North America,
displaying an uncoiling snake about 400 meters long. A picture may
be found at:

Previous suggestions about what the effigy represents include a serpent
with its mouth open about to devour an egg, or the myth of the horned
serpent common to several Native American cultures.

The identity of the builders remains a myster. The Adena are frequently
cited as candidates. The Adena lived throughout Ohio and parts of Kentucky
and West Virginia. They are best known for their earthwork mounds.
Serpent images carved in stone have been retrieved from burial mounds of
the Adena.

-- Phil "Pib" Burns
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. USA


Serpent Mound crater created by meteor?

Copyright 1997 by United Press International / Wed, 5 Mar 1997 12:02:12 PST

COLUMBUS, Ohio, March 5 (UPI) -- A large mysterious southwest Ohio crater
in which the Serpent Mound is located may have been formed by a meteorite.

A state geologist said Wednesday the impact might have disturbed gas and
lava deposits 200 million years ago, creating an upheavel that was later
made by American Indians into a 1,348-foot-long representation of a
serpent, swallowing an egg 60 miles east of Cincinnati.

The five-mile-wide crater has been one of the Buckeye State's mysteries --
a site at which rocks stand on end and defy gravity's pull.

The Cincinnati author of ``The Mystery of the Serpent Mound,'' D. Ross
Hamilton, told UPI, ``Some scientists believe the crypto-formation was
created by subterranean lava flows pushing upward, causing piezo electric
effects, trapping and channeling the natural, magnetic field of the

State geologist Michael Hanson said, ``Throughout the Midwest there are
these ancient circular areas of intense disturbance where the rocks have
been catastrophically moved, destroyed and twisted around.''

Hanson said radio-carbon dating dates the mound at 1060 or 1070 A.D.

``A passage of Halley's Comet in 1066 A.D. was one of the most spectacular
passages of that comet, so one can speculate the serpent effigy mound
represents that comet's tail.''


CCCMENU CCC for 1997