CCNet 100/2002 - 27 August 2002

"Sooner or later "asteroid to hit" will actually be true. But by
then, having cried wolf one silly season too many, we will all be
too blasé to care, or even notice."
--Private Eye, August 2002

*Please note that I will be attending the London Conference on
"Environmental Catastrophes & Recovery in the Holocene" until Sunday*
Benny Peiser


    Chicago Tribune, 23 August 2002

    The Geological Society of London, August 2002


    Andrew Yee <>

    Christian Koeberl <>

    Sky & Telescope, 23 August 2002


    Space Daily, 26 August 2002

    MacArthur Chronicle, Australia, 27th August 2002


     David H. Levy <>

     Pavel Chichikov <>

     E.P. Grondine <>

     Private Eye (London), issue 1060, 9-22 August 2002.


>From Chicago Tribune, 23 August 2002
By Kathy Paur
Tribune staff reporter

An asteroid 200 feet across missed the Earth by an astronomical hair's
breadth recently, and scientists didn't notice until three days later. Last
weekend, a passing asteroid was big enough and close enough to be seen with

As "near earth objects," these space rocks are now on a list that NASA is
slowly compiling in hopes that, with enough notice, humankind could act to
prevent a life-threatening asteroid from smashing into the planet.

An international network of astronomers, including several NASA-funded
teams, daily record new asteroid sightings and observational data. Amateurs
are also part of the hunt, providing additional celestial information.

Ideally, these efforts would track all asteroids passing near the Earth, and
predict impacts long before they happen. But the international asteroid
search has accelerated into a serious, systematic project only in the last
several years, and its budget limits how many Earth-threatening asteroids it
can find.

Though scientists shy away from sensationalizing the threat, they also
caution against complacence.

`Very high consequence'

"An impact is a low-probability event in relation to hurricanes and
volcanoes and earthquakes, but it has a very high consequence," explained
Brian Marsden, director of the Minor Planet Center at the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which serves as a clearinghouse
for asteroid tracking data.

Asteroid impacts as large as the one blamed for the dinosaurs' extinction
occur statistically once every 1 million years (sic). But smaller asteroids
are also problematic.

In 1908, an asteroid measuring about 200 feet exploded over Siberia,
releasing a blast wave that leveled 800 square miles of forest. On average,
asteroids that size slam into the Earth every 100 years, and they could do
incredible damage in populated areas.

Marsden sees NASA's asteroid tracking project as insurance against being
caught unawares by large asteroids. The agency spends about $3.5 million
annually to find and monitor such celestial objects, mostly on search
telescopes but also on follow-up observations and scientific bookkeeping.

With 20 years' notice, NASA and the military might be able to divert or even
destroy an asteroid hurtling toward the Earth by using rocket boosters or
nuclear weapons, scientists said.

So far, about 2,000 asteroids--600 of them more than a kilometer wide--have
been designated as near earth objects, or NEOs, because they travel within
30 million miles of Earth's orbit, about the distance to Venus.

NASA has a commitment to Congress to find 90 percent of all such objects
larger than a kilometer--about a half mile--by 2008, and Marsden notes the
effort may be on track. Astronomers guess they have found about 60 percent
so far.

Naperville group weighs in

But Rich Godwin, who directs The Watch, a Naperville-based group dedicated
to raising awareness of the asteroid threat, said NASA's program isn't
sufficient because it neglects smaller asteroids that could still cause

Expanding the program to find objects wider than 200 feet would require at
least $30 million a year, Marsden estimated. To reliably find even smaller
asteroids, astronomers would need Hubble-like space telescopes and billions
of dollars.

Still, Marsden said new telescopes and equipment have greatly increased
NASA's asteroid surveying capacity over the last five years, and the number
of observations on record at the Minor Planet Center has doubled in the last
15 months.

"Every year we try to find funds to improve detectors, to help people
migrate to larger telescopes, to improve software, basically to make capital
investments," said Tom Morgan, Minor Planets Program scientist for NASA.

When they spot a potential threat, astronomers calculate whether the
asteroid could strike the Earth. Last month, for example, scientists
discovered a mile-wide asteroid that would approach the planet in 2019.

Following a common course for asteroid findings, this one was first spotted
by the largest of NASA's five search projects, using a mirror telescope in
New Mexico. Because the initial data suggested it was an NEO, the Minor
Planet Center distributed the findings to astronomers around the world, who
then provided follow-up observations.

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California then computed the
asteroid's orbit and found that it would pass close to the Earth in
2019--perhaps too close. But with another week of data, the astronomers
refined their calculations and determined that the asteroid would miss
Earth--joining the roster of discoveries of potentially hazardous asteroids
that have ended in safe anonymity.

Hard to find in vastness

But what about the asteroid that passed closer to the Earth than the moon?
Why didn't scientists find it earlier? Well, it's small--the same size as
the one that damaged Siberia--and thus harder to see. The asteroid search
telescopes can see only small patches of outer space at one time.

"People who search for NEOs have a crushingly hard job," Morgan said.
"They're at the telescope every dark, clear night of the year. They go
through large volumes of data from which they extract just a few objects."

NASA's asteroid tracking teams aren't the only ones looking. They are joined
by observatories in Japan and Eastern Europe, as well as hundreds of amateur
astronomers who forward back-yard observations to the Minor Planet Center.

Bob Elliott, a retired astronomy professor at University of Wisconsin in Eau
Claire, reports new positional data from his summer cottage at Lake
Leenanau, Mich.

His 12-inch telescope sits on a sand dune outside his window, covered with a
sleeping bag and a reflective cover during the day. But on clear nights,
generally between 11:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m., he checks on the Minor Planet
Center's latest asteroids.

"Some people buy bass boats to chase fish, but I bought a telescope to chase
asteroids and comets," Elliott said.

Joining the search

Would-be asteroid trackers can outfit themselves with a computerized
telescope and photography equipment for $5,000 to $10,000, he estimated.

Though a network of amateur astronomers and small observation teams
scattered across the globe, reporting data to a few people in Massachusetts,
may not be the usual image of a NASA mission, Marsden thinks it works, if

Just the same, he thinks the asteroid tracking budget is "not enough."

"We have to look at the situation seriously. How seriously do we regard the
threat from NEOs, and how much do we think we should put into finding them
so that we will have a reasonable chance of knowing if we're going to be hit
by one?" Marsden asked.

"That's a judgment that we have to make, in comparison with other dangers
that we face every day," he added.

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune


>From The Geological Society of London, August 2002

For further information, please contact:
Dr Benny Peiser
Liverpool John Moores University
0044 151 231 4338
At some time around 2300 BC, a large number of the major civilisations of
the world collapsed, simultaneously it seems. The Akkadian Empire in
Mesopotamia, the Old Kingdom in Egypt, the Early Bronze Age civilisation in
Israel, Anatolia and Greece, as well as the Indus Valley civilisation in
India, the Hilmand civilisation in Afghanistan and the Hongshan Culture in
China - the first urban civilisations in the world - all fell into ruin at
more or less the same time. Why?

A thousand years later, at around 1200 BC, many of the civilisations of the
same regions again collapsed at about the same time. This time, disaster
overtook the Myceneans of Greece, the Hittites of Anatolia, the Egyptian New
Kingdom, Late Bronze Age Israel, and the Shang Dynasty of China.

Another huge upheaval occurred around 540 AD, when a major natural
catastrophe together with a climatic downturn devastated Europe and other
parts of the world, triggering the collapse of the Roman Empire and the
onset of the Dark Ages.

The reasons for these widespread and apparently simultaneous disasters -
which coincided also with changes of cultures and societies elsewhere, such
as in Britain - have long been a fascinating mystery.

Traditional explanations include warfare, famine, and more recently `climate
change`. But the apparent absence of direct archaeological or written
evidence for causes, as opposed to the effects, has led many archaeologists
and historians into a resigned assumption that no definite explanation can possibly be found.

Over the past years, however, a new theory has been advanced by researchers
that these massive cultural punctuations may have been caused by the impact
of cosmic debris on the Earth.

At a special workshop convened by Dr Benny Peiser of Liverpool John Moores
University astronomers and impact researchers will focus on episodes of
increased cometary or meteoric activity that may have punctuated social
evolution during the last 10,000 years. They will also address the
environmental effects and societal repercussions of cosmic impacts during
the last 10,000 years.

Read the abstracts for these speakers at:
Notes for editor
This release is one in a series of media advisories for the forthcoming
conference Environmental Catastrophes & Recovery in the Holocene (28 Aug - 2
Sept., 2002) Brunel University, West London. For further information,
contact the convener Dr Iain Stewart. Please note that the Geological
Society of London is only promoting the conference, and is not able to take
media enquiries concerning it.

Holocene extraterrestrial impacts and their effects   Thursday 29th August
(15.20 - 17.30 hrs)

Benny Peiser (Liverpool John Moores University): Sub-Critical Impacts during
the Holocene
Mark E. Bailey (Armagh Observatory): Time-Variability of the Interplanetary
Duncan Steel (Salford University): The Coherent Catastrophism Hypothesis
Ted Bryant (School of Geosciences, University of Wollongong): Evidence for
Cosmogenic Tsunami
W. Bruce Masse (Los Alamos National Laboratory): The human dimensions of
cosmic impact: an analysis of South America`s myths of the "Great Fire"
S.V.M. Clube (Armagh Observatory): The calendar and the Holocene

Reference URL : http://



By Mike Baillie

The heart of humanity seems at times to have lost its cadence, the rhythmic
beat of history collapsing into impotent chaos. Wars raged. Pestilence
spread. Famine reigned. Death came early and hard. Dynasties died, and
civilization flickered.

Such a time came in the sixth century A.D. The Dark Ages settled heavily
over Europe. Rome had been beaten back from its empire. Art and science
stagnated. Even the sun turned its back. "We marvel to see no shadows of our
bodies at noon, to feel the mighty vigor of the sun's heat wasted into
feebleness," Italian historian Flavius Cassiodorus wrote at the time. "We
have summer without heat. The crops have been chilled by north winds, (and)
the rain is denied."

In China, "the stars were lost from view for three months." The sun dimmed,
the rain failed, and snow fell in the summertime. Famine spread, and the
emperor abandoned his capital amid political and economic disasters.

Then came pestilence. The Justinian plague, named for a Byzantine emperor,
apparently began in central Asia, spread into Egypt, and then swept across
Europe. Hundreds of thousands died.

The world had gone to hell in a hurry, if the historical accounts can be
believed. But with neither evidence of global disaster nor a viable cause,
the records were widely doubted by historians.

Worldwide Disasters

New evidence, however, supports the tales of ancient scribes and identifies
brief but brutal times of worldwide ecological catastrophe. The evidence is
in tree rings, which clearly show several years of cold weather that stunted
growth beginning in A.D. 536 and especially after A.D. 540-541. The rings
show similar events that began in 1628 B.C. and 1159 B.C., and rare written
documents of those times seem also to describe cataclysmic social collapse.

What weapon does nature wield that is powerful enough to alter the course of
civilizations within a few years? The most likely explanation, the best fit
with the evidence, is that described by both Chinese and Europeans as
dragons in the sky: Pieces of comets (or perhaps of asteroids) crashed into
Earth, spewing a veil of dust that encircled the world and dimmed the sun.

A much larger and rarer bolide (an exploding meteoric fireball) is assumed
to have ended the reign of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. A
smaller and more common one exploded over the Tunguska River in the Siberian
wilderness 91 years ago with 2,000 times the power of the
bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. And just five years ago, astronomers
watched the fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plow spectacularly into

Near Misses

I believe the association between the tree-ring data and historical
documents and folktales is real: Earth faced catastrophic environmental
dislocation at or around 1628 B.C., 1159 B.C., and A.D. 540 (and probably in
2354 B.C. and 208 B.C., as well) because of near-miss comets, either through
dust-loading of the atmosphere as Earth passed through the comet's dusty
tail or through direct bombardment by cometary fragments. (They must have
been near misses, because if we had been hit by a full-blown comet in the
past 10,000 years or so, we wouldn't be here today.) This hypothesis is not
proven, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

The strongest evidence comes from tree rings and the science of
dendrochronology. Tree rings record the age of a tree, with a distinct ring
of growth produced each year. The width of each ring depends on growing
conditions, so each year's growth in a particular area leaves a unique
signature (a reflection of fat, moderate, or lean growing conditions) in the
tree-ring record.

By calibrating the rings through progressively older trees from a specific
region, archaeologists can build millennia-long chronologies that allow them
to date ancient wooden artifacts. (See Discovering Archaeology, May/June,
page 45.) The pattern of tree rings in an artifact can be matched to the
regional chronology to determine the year in which the tree died.

A less-well-known consequence of these chronologies is that we can now
identify periods in which trees grew very little or not at all. This is
indicated by clusters of extremely narrow rings, which suggest extremely
cold growing seasons. A band of these narrow rings occurred after A.D. 540
and lasted about six years in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America.

Similar ring patterns are found around 1159 B.C. and 1628 B.C. These dates
may coincide with the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations across Eurasia.
They may also be recalled in the biblical book of Exodus and contemporary
records from China.

The first inkling that tree rings might record catastrophic events came in
the mid-1980s from dendrochronologist Val LaMarche and volcanologist Kathy
Hirschboeck. In the extremely long-lived bristlecone pines of the western
United States, they noted a frost-damage ring at 1627 B.C. and
suggested it might reflect the massive eruption of the Santorini volcano in
the Aegean Sea. Similar frost rings followed the eruptions of Krakatoa in
Indonesia (1883) and Katmai in Alaska (1912).

After a major volcanic eruption, Earth is veiled by a layer of fine debris
circulating in the stratosphere. This layer reflects sunlight away from
Earth, causing the surface to cool.

As a result of their suggestion, I searched the ring patterns derived from
oak logs that had been preserved in the peat bogs of Ireland. I found that
many trees exhibited the worst growth - the narrowest rings - of their
lifetimes starting in 1628 B.C. Only a few other such events
were seen in the rings, but two others were at 1159 B.C. and A.D. 540. Those
years are close to dates for acid-rich layers (attributed to volcanic
eruptions) that had been identified in ice cores taken in Greenland. We
seemed to be onto something.

Mandate of Heaven

Then astronomer Kevin Pang of the California Institute of Technology
(Caltech) noted that 1628 B.C. and 1159 B.C. roughly mark the beginning and
end of the Shang Dynasty of Bronze Age China. Both ends of the dynasty
featured, according to ancient Chinese texts, environmental disasters -
dimming of the sun and summer frosts that caused crop failures and famine.
Pang notes also the Chinese concept of "mandate of heaven," wherein a
dynasty reigned only as long as it protected the well-being of its people.
This notion might have originated in the coincidence of dynastic change and
climatic disaster.

The Caltech team also noted similar descriptions from A.D. 536-545 that
describe climatic disruptions that led to catastrophic famines and great
loss of life.

Much was going on in the world around these three dates. The four centuries
of the Greek Dark Ages, which began after the Mycenaean era of mainland
Greece collapsed amid great social upheaval, are thought to have begun in
the twelfth century B.C. This period also saw the end of the once-mighty
Hittite civilization of Anatolia in the Near East and of Bronze Age Israel.

The situation in Egypt is more ambiguous. Egypt's prosperous New Kingdom
grew out of a century or so of warfare and upheaval known as the Second
Intermediate Period, which itself followed the end of the Middle Kingdom.
The New Kingdom has been dated from 1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C. While that is 70
years later than our two dates (1628 B.C. and 1159 B.C.), the time span is
almost exactly the same. Some scholars have questioned traditional Egyptian
dating, and it seems possible the timing of the New Kingdom, some 3,500
years ago, might be a little off.

Then the volcano hypothesis began to dim. Volcanologists noted that
volcanoes normally would not be powerful enough to collapse dynasties - the
dust and acid, even if sufficient to dim sunlight, washes out of the
atmosphere within a few years. And a review of the ice-core evidence from
Greenland failed completely to confirm an exceptional volcanic eruption at
A.D. 540.

Cosmic Swarms

It appears now that something far more damaging than volcanoes may have been
at work here, especially after seeing unassailable proof that comets can hit
planets: the extraordinary spectacle of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashing into
Jupiter in 1994. Comets appear in Chinese records of events at the beginning
and end of the Shang dynasty. Were the catastrophic environmental downturns
at 1628 B.C., 1159 B.C., and A.D. 540 caused by encounters with comets?

Archaeologists and astrophysicists do not necessarily read each other's
work, and it mostly escaped notice that three British cometary
astrophysicists - Mark Bailey, Victor Clube, and Bill Napier - had published
a highly relevant paper in 1990. They wrote that Earth had been at increased
risk of bombardment by cometary debris in the period A.D. 400-600. They
based their conclusion on the increased number of great meteor showers
during that period.

It's hard to overestimate the devastation that could result from a serious
bolide impact on Earth. The impact of fragments measuring between one and
several hundred meters across can cause fiery, multimegaton explosions that
destroy natural and cultural features across huge areas through fire blasts,
earthquakes, and tidal waves (if the debris arrives over the sea).

The danger in A.D. 400-600, concluded Bailey and colleagues, was of Earth
running into a "cosmic swarm" of objects the size of the one that exploded
over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908. Some astronomers believe we can expect
Tunguska-type impacts every 50 years on average, while an impact with
explosive power in the 1,000- to 10,000-megaton range - a super Tunguska
event - is likely in any 5,000-year period. Such impacts could trigger
enormous global ecological catastrophe.

Impacts between those two extremes might be expected often enough to account
for these calamities. Direct evidence, however, is scanty. Associating
craters to specific events is problematic at best; the Tunguska event left
no significant crater at all, since the bolide exploded a few kilometers
above the surface. Impacts in or over the ocean would not leave physical

We turned, then, to the written record and oral traditions. Comets were
extraordinary objects that seemed rarely to escape written notice. Zachariah
of Mitylene noted about A.D. 540 that - a great and terrible comet appeared
in the sky at evening time for 100 days." Chinese texts about the same time
say: "Dragons fought in the pond of the K'uh o. They went westward. ... In
the places they passed, all the trees were broken." Similar descriptions are
common throughout the Old World.

Sixth-century events generally are well-dated. But with more ancient
documents and traditions, dating usually is ambivalent at best. This is why
similarly spaced events in the second millennium B.C. are so interesting.
What are the chances of similarly spaced events in both Hebrew and Chinese
histories, both with cometary associations, arising by chance?

There is, I feel, a strong case for the contention that we do not inhabit a
benign planet. This planet is bombarded relatively often. If this story is
correct, we have been bombarded at least three times - and probably five
times - since the birth of civilization some 5,000 years ago. And each time,
the world was changed.

MIKE BAILLIE is a leading dendrochronologist and Professor of Palaeoecology
at Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. His book, Exodus to
Arthur, describes in detail his theory of comet encounters and turning
points of civilization.

Copyright 1999, Discovering Archaeology


>From Andrew Yee <>

Informnauka (Informscience) Agency
Moscow, Russia

Tatiana Pitchugina,, 7-095-2675418



A geologist from Novosibirsk has set up a new hypothesis of the explosion in
Podkamennaya Tunguska, which took place on June 30, 1908. It was not a
meteorite that caused such extensive destructions and conflagration, but a fluid jet,
which had shot up under high pressure from the interior of the Earth.

The event which occurred almost a hundred years ago in Podkamennaya Tunguska
has drawn scientists' attention again. What actually exploded at that time
in the remote taiga, the power of explosion being equal to the 50-megaton H-bomb?
The hypothesis that it was a meteorite or any other extraterrestrial object has not quite
satisfied inquisitive minds, since too many puzzles remain unsolved. A geologist Vladimir
Epifanov, Siberian Research Institute of Geology, Geophysics and Mineral, reported to
the recent Conference "Degasification of the Earthe" (Moscow) that the reason for the
explosion could have been a powerful fluid jet suddenly shot up from the depth of the planet.

Extensive carbohydrates accumulations exist in the area where the alleged
'Tunguska meteorite' fell down. Two abyssal breaks in this area split the
sedimentary rock containing the gas-and-oil fields and gas-condensate fields
sealed up by basalts on top, the basalts streamed from multiple fissures and
volcanoes 200 million years ago. The epicentre of the explosion
is located just above one of the ancient craters. The scientist assumes that
the gases associated with the oil deposits, and methane produced in the
depths of coal beds were accumulated under a thick cover of basalts and then
they broke free one day. It seems that a moderate earthquake could have
promoted the process.

The gas kick started nine days prior to the major explosion, a narrow jet of
gases rushed up southbound. The fluid jet from under the earth was
accompanied by dust, and the wind carried the dust to the west. In the upper
layers of atmosphere a layer of aerosols was formed. This layer charged with
electricity could have produced the fatal 'sparkle'. It put on fire the top of the
liquid jet, and the fire ball rushed towards the Earth. In the oxygen saturated layer
of atmosphere the fire ball exploded, the blast wave stirred up the ground, and the gas
discharge ceased.

The conflagration was in full swing in the area of explosion, however the
trees in the epicentre remained alive. An ice dome was probably formed
around the place where from the gas discharged, similar to that as it gets
formed in a refrigerator when the gas goes through a narrow opening and then
gets into a large chamber. It is interesting to note that the local
carbohydrates are rich in helium, which could have ensured the H-bomb

Vladimir Epifanov is perplexed by some circumstances of the Tunguska
catastrophe, the extraterrestrial hypothesis being unable to account for
them. For instance, not all the trees in the epicentre got burned. Judging by the
strength of the blast wave, radiation burn, pine-tree mutations and other
parameters, the event resembles the H-bomb explosion, except for high
radiation. The motion path of the exploded body is such that it could hardly
be a spaceship or a meteorite, the substance of which has never been found
in the soil. All these facts have made the scientist think about an earthly
nature of the explosion, particularly because such conjectures were made
more than once by researchers in different years. Thus, in the middle of the
80s A.A. Rastegin, geologist from Novosibirsk, pointed out that the
epicentre of the explosion was indeed located above a major gas

For additional information:

Vladimir A. Epifanov
Siberian Research
Institute of Geology, Geophysics and Mineral
Tel. +7 (3832) 22-47-22, +7 (3832) 21-49-47


>From Christian Koeberl <>

Impacts: a Geological and Astronomical Perspective
Prague  (Czech Republic)
October 12th - October 16th, 2002

A workshop within the framework of the European Science Foundation (ESF)
IMPACT Programme

The principal purpose of this workshop is to bring together representatives
from the geoscience and  astronomy communities in order to discuss the
causes and consequences of impact processes. A primary goal of the workshop
is to bring together the two communities for discussion of role of impact
processes throughout the Earth's history and the present risks posed by Near
Earth Objects..

The following themes (among others) will be the subject of this workshop:

Small bodies in the Solar system - trajectories
Small bodies in the Solar system - compositions
Probabilities of impacts from NEOs
The geological record of impacts
Fragmentation of asteroids and bolides within the Earth's atmosphere
Relationship to life and its origin: role impact versus soft landing
NEO - classification of NEO asteroids - and their meteoritic equivalent
Do we see all the solid material of asteroid belt in the meteorites?
Historical aspects of impact cratering

For each workshop topic one or two key note presentations are planned,
followed by the contributed papers and abundant time for discussion.

Abstract and accommodation reservation deadline: September 15, 2002.

Contact: Dr. Petr Jakes, Faculty of Science, Albertov 6, Praha 2, 128 43
Czech Republic; or; phone: +4202
21952426 mobile phone: 420 602 627044, fax +4202 24921736

For other information on the workshop, see the ESF IMPACT homepage at:
Christian Koeberl
Institute of Geochemistry
University of Vienna
Althanstrasse 14
A-1090 Vienna, AUSTRIA

Tel.: +43-1-4277-53110
Fax: +43-1-4277-9531


>From Sky & Telescope, 23 August 2002

By J. Kelly Beatty
August 23, 2002 | The last two months have been good ones for Plutophiles.
In July a U.S. Senate subcommittee fortified NASA's budget with $105 million
to continue work on the New Horizons mission, which could be launched toward
the distant planet as soon as 2006. And during the past five weeks
telescopes have captured the passage of Pluto in front of not one, but two
faint stars. Although analysis of the stars' brief disappearances has only
begun, it is already clear that observing teams from the United States and
Europe have come to very different conclusions about the state of Pluto's

During the first event, on July 20th (Universal Time), Pluto's shadow
crossed South America and, unfortunately, barely missed passing over a
string of major observatories in the Andes. The only "hits" came from
astronomers with portable setups: Marc Buie and Oscar Saa used a 14-inch
Celestron and a CCD camera near the small Chilean town of Mamiña, while
Francois Colas had a video-equipped 12-inch telescope a little farther north
near Arica. According to Bruno Sicardy, who coordinated the European effort,
seven other ground teams in Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela were either
clouded out or experienced technical difficulties. Fortunes improved for the
August 21st occultation, as the broad path passed over observatories in
Hawaii and the Far West.

Pluto's atmosphere was discovered during just such an event 14 years ago,
making its existence known when a star winked off and on gradually (not
abruptly) as the planet passed directly in front of it from Earth's
perspective. But no other occultations by Pluto have been observed since
because the planet's disk is so small (0.1 arcsecond across) that head-on
encounters with stars are rare. The 1988 occultation, recorded in Australia
and New Zealand, and over the South Pacific by the now-mothballed Kuiper
Airborne Observatory, demonstrated that Pluto's atmosphere has a surface
pressure only 1/100,000 that of Earth. But sharp kinks in the light curves
also revealed that the lower atmosphere contains either a layer of haze or a
temperature-inversion layer.

In planning for this year's events, astronomers believed they could end
years of speculation about these disparate models, as well as whether
Pluto's wisps of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide are freezing out
onto the surface as the planet slips farther from the Sun. (Pluto passed the
perihelion point of its 248-year-long orbit in 1989.) "We've seen that the
atmosphere is really changing," says James L. Elliot, who coordinated the
U.S. observing effort. "It's not like it was in 1988 - that's firm." He
notes that at the highest levels the gas is now roughly 110° Kelvin, colder
by 10° to 30° than in the past, and the light curve's distinctive kink is

At the same time, Buie adds, there are hints that gas closest to the ground,
near 40° K in past years, has gotten warmer - and by implication so has the
surface. Buie speculates that even though Pluto is moving away from the Sun,
its surface may have recently become darker. Perhaps its patchy dark regions
are now facing the Sun more directly, and thus absorbing extra energy, or
perhaps a frost layer near the north pole (now bathed in more direct
sunlight) is vaporizing to reveal a darker underlying surface.

But all this talk of "dramatic changes" in the atmosphere is being met with
skepticism by Sicardy. "We have no firm evidence for a cooldown of the upper
atmosphere," he counters. Moreover, the diagnostic kink can be seen in his
team's light curves from both occultations, though not as conspicuously as
it was 14 years ago. "We don't see much change, though there are some

Both teams agree that this confusing situation would be much clearer if only
they knew Pluto's true diameter, which is near 2,300 km but still uncertain
by several tens of kilometers. There's a chance that one of the tracings
from August 21st will probe all the way to the surface, which, Buie notes,
would provide a "real breakthrough." Also, since Elliot's team recorded the
event in many visible and infrared wavelengths, it should be possible to
distinguish between the "haze-layer" and "inversion-layer" models. "Stay
tuned," Buie says: another promising occultation may be observable on
November 7th.

Copyright 2002 Sky Publishing Corp.



Donald Savage/Bob Jacobs
Headquarters, Washington               August 26, 2002
(Phone: 202/358-1547/1600)

RELEASE: 02-161


NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe today announced that Chief Engineer Theron
M. Bradley Jr. will lead a team to investigate the apparent loss of the
CONTOUR mission space probe. The investigation team will independently
examine all aspects of the CONTOUR mission, which has been out of contact
with controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
(APL), Laurel, Md., since a scheduled engine firing Aug. 15.

In May, Bradley joined the agency as Chief Engineer to provide independent
technical review of NASA's programs and projects. He's a distinguished U.S.
Navy engineer who was instrumental in the initial design of the nuclear
propulsion plant for Nimitz class aircraft carriers and the advanced reactor
design for Los Angeles class submarines. Bradley also served as a civilian
with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Defense in numerous
leadership and management positions.

The team will include a team of internal NASA investigators from space
science, as well as other aerospace disciplines, and external experts with
extensive experience in accident examinations. The group is expected to
report its initial findings to NASA Headquarters in six to eight weeks.

Among the team members selected to work with Bradley are retired Navy
Admirals J. Paul Reason and Joseph Lopez.

Admiral Reason is a member of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP).
He's an aerospace consultant and former four-star Commander in Chief of the
U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet. The ASAP was established by Congress in January
1967 after the Apollo 204 Command and Service Module spacecraft fire and is
chartered to review, evaluate and advise on agency program activities,
systems, procedures and management policies that contribute to risk, and to
provide identification and assessment for the NASA Administrator.

Admiral Lopez is one of the two flag officers in the U.S. Navy to achieve
the rank of four-star admiral after direct commission from enlisted service.
The retired admiral is the former commander of NATO forces in southern
Europe and has played a leadership role in numerous accident investigations.
He currently directs Global Government Operations as an executive with
Houston-based KBR (Kellogg, Brown & Root).

On Aug. 15, CONTOUR's STAR 30 solid-propellant rocket motor was programmed
to ignite at 4:49 a.m. EDT, giving CONTOUR enough boost to escape Earth's
orbit. At that time, CONTOUR was about 140 miles above the Indian Ocean and
out of radio contact with controllers. The CONTOUR mission operations team
at APL expected to regain contact at approximately 5:35 a.m. EDT to confirm
the burn, but NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas did not acquire a

Since then, there has been no contact with CONTOUR. Commands pre-programmed
into the spacecraft's flight computer system, designed to instruct the
spacecraft to try various alternate methods of contacting Earth when contact
is lost, also have not worked to date.

Images from a Spacewatch ground-based telescope at Kitt Peak, Ariz., show
three objects at the location where CONTOUR was predicted to be, images
which may indicate the spacecraft has broken apart. Mission controllers at APL
will continue listening for signals from the spacecraft periodically until early December,
when CONTOUR will come into a more favorable angle for receiving a signal from Earth.

CONTOUR is a Discovery-class mission to explore the nucleus of comets. The
Principal Investigator is Dr. Joseph Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca,
N.Y., who selected APL to  build the spacecraft and manage the mission for

Additional information about CONTOUR is available on the Internet at:

>From Space Daily, 26 August 2002

by Bruce Moomaw

Los Angeles - Aug 26, 2002
The loss of the Contour comet probe will soon put the investigative
spotlight on the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at the Johns Hopkins
University in Maryland as a NASA appointed panel seeks to find out what went
wrong with the 180 million dollar probe as it fired its main engine to leave
Earth orbit on August 15.

In recent years, as APL has shift from a dependency on naval research
contracts, the lab has sought to carve out a new role as a growing rival to
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the design and management of Solar
System exploration missions. Most notable among the Lab's recent success was
the NEAR asteroid mission to Eros which was by all accounts a stunning

Moreover, in these early days as the story of what went wrong from with
Contour begins to take shape there are several reasons why APL will face
tough questioning as its seeks to recover from the loss of Contour and go on
to manage more missions to deep space - not least of which includes a
possible mission to Pluto in 2006. Among the many issues facing the
investigation panel are three critical points:

Firstly, is the fact that the probe was out of range of Earth tracking
stations when it ignited its STAR-30BP solid motor to boost itself out of
Earth orbit making it extremely hard to diagnose the cause of the failure.

The possibility that the unknown cause of the failure might have been
connected with negligence or poor design management and testing by APL.

And thirdly, the fact that the failure occurred just as APL's "New Horizons"
Pluto spacecraft - whose avionics are largely based on Contour -is
confronting the key moment of its struggle for last-minute Congressional
approval against the wishes of both NASA headquarters and the White House.

But, SpaceDaily's researches suggest that - while Contour is still a serious
loss both for science in general and for APL - its cause may already have
become much less mysterious, and will probably have fewer repercussions for
the New Horizons mission to Pluto than initially may seem the case.

Sources connected with APL report that, while the probe's telemetry wasn't
monitored during the unsuccessful burn, it was observed by various
instruments of the U.S. military (orbiting and/or ground-based). According
to these sources the motor's burn appeared normal until 2 or 3 seconds
before its scheduled end, at which point a sudden "flare" appeared almost 10
times brighter in the infrared. This meshes well with telescopic
observations of Contour's three visible fragments, which appear to be in the
solar orbit that would have resulted from a burn cut 3 seconds short.

There seem to be only two possible sources in the craft for such an
explosion: a rupture in the STAR motor itself, or an explosion in Contour's
own supply of hydrazine fuel for its maneuvering and attitude control

The thrusters, however, had been used repeatedly for a long series of
maneuvers during the three weeks the craft spent in elongated Earth orbit
before the escape burn, and (like Contour's other systems) had worked

Moreover, they were not fired during the burn itself - although they would
have been used afterward to despin the craft so that it could switch back
from spin stabilization to active 3-axis stabilization.

In Contour's design the STAR motor is nestled inside the craft's structure,
raising suggestions that - if Contour's thermal design and testing had been
seriously flawed - heat generated by the solid motor might have raised the
temperature of the main hydrazine tank enough to trigger its ignition or

APL sources, have however told SpaceDaily that this possibility had indeed
been considered from the very start of design work on the craft - and that
tests had shown that the heat pulse from the STAR burn would have taken an
hour to spread fully into the craft, and would never have raised the
temperature of any part of it by more than 20 degrees Centigrade - not
nearly enough to destabilize its hydrazine.

This would seem to indicate that the explosion did indeed occur inside the
STAR motor itself. There are, however, two odd features of this.

First, Thiokol's series of STAR motor models, manufactured for decades, are
very reliable - the STAR-30BP motor has been used routinely since 1984, with
only two failures in 86 missions. Nor do STAR solid motors seem to
deteriorate from prolonged exposure to the space environment; one STAR-48
motor worked perfectly after 15 months in space to brake the Magellan
spacecraft into orbit around Venus.

Second, it would seem odd that the explosion occurred at the very end of the
burn, just when the intense pressure inside the motor was tapering off.
However, yhe latter makes more sense on closer examination.

Solid motors have exploded near the end of their burn on several previous
space missions - including Syncom 1 (the very first attempt at a
geosynchronous comsat) back in February 1963, and the Surveyor 4 lunar soft
lander in July 1967 (which lost contact with Earth at just the moment when
its accelerometers indicated that the STAR-37 motor, that had served as its
main retrorocket, was starting to drop off in thrust less than 2 seconds
before the scheduled end of its burn).

The reason is that a solid motor's thrust starts to drop at the time when
its solid fuel has been completely consumed back to the motor's chamber wall
in many places, leaving many isolated patches of fuel which are supposed to
remain bonded firmly to the wall until they are done burning.

But if one breaks loose, it can instantly be blasted into the motor nozzle,
plugging it long enough to create an explosive pressure buildup inside the

Given this danger. solid motors are carefully radiographed during assembly
to remove the possibility that flaws exist in the glue bonding the solid
fuel to the motor wall, but occasionally flaws can slip through.

Another commentator has suggested that, since Contour spent three weeks in
Earth orbit, it might have passed several times through Earth's shadow,
leading to major changes in the craft's temperature that might have produced
repeated tiny contractions and expansions in the STAR motor's metal wall,
thus loosening the glue bonding the fuel to it.

However, APL sources have told SpaceDaily that the spacecraft's elongated
Earth orbits were deliberately designed from the start so that it would
never fly through Earth's shadow at all, since such periods of cold and dark
might have harmed the craft's systems in other ways.

If so, then - while the cause of the failure is still far from certain and
will obviously require a detailed inquiry - it would seem likely that it was
indeed due to sheer bad luck: a slight flaw in that particular STAR motor
that slipped past inspection, rather than negligence in the Contour craft's
design and testing by APL.

Exploration Horizons Beyond Contour

If so, this would be very good news indeed for New Horizons, whose approval
would be seriously endangered by any evidence of APL negligence - especially
since, unlike Contour, it would carry 7 kg of highly radioactive
plutonium-238 for power.

Complicating matter is that it's unlikely that the official inquiry into the
Contour failure can be completed before the House votes on whether to
approve the Pluto probe; but there would be nothing to keep Congress from
approving initial funds for New Horizons - that could be withdrawn later if
the inquiry did actually give cause to doubt the probe's reliability.

It should also be noted that New Horizons differs very significantly in
design from Contour. While its avionics are substantially based on Contour;
its body shape, and mechanical and thermal structures are radically
different in design, and the engineering team that designed it is more
closely associated with APL's highly successful NEAR asteroid rendezvous

Any rejection of New Horizons at this very last point because of the Contour
failure would be sadly ironic, for virtually all the other news in the last
few weeks has been very favorable to the mission.
Moreover, its own STAR-48V kickstage is fastened to the outside of the
spacecraft by a bracket - eliminating any conceivable danger that it might
generate a heat buildup inside the craft - and will be fired immediately
during the initial launch (and then ejected), eliminating any danger that
prolonged exposure to the space environment might damage it.

Moreover, the craft will already be travelling at escape velocity from Earth
before the STAR motor fires, eliminating any danger that an explosion or
failure of the motor might cause the plutonium in its RTG power generator to
fall back to Earth.

In any case, rejection of New Horizons at this very last point because of
the Contour failure would be sadly ironic, for virtually all the other news
in the last few weeks has been very favorable to the mission.

The long-awaited "Decadal Survey Report" commissioned by NASA itself, in
which a board of America's top planetary astronomers recommended the form of
the Solar System exploration program through 2013 - forcefully described a
Pluto-Kuiper Belt Object flyby mission as the highest priority by far for an
immediate new project start, and this report played a major role in
persuading the Senate to fund New Horizons for a 2006 launch.

Meanwhile, the August 19 edition of "Aviation Week" reports that NASA
management is now dropping its initial plan to resist this mission and
instead request designs for a later Pluto probe launched in 2008-09.

The latter, having missed its opportunity for a gravity-assist flyby of
Jupiter, would require development of a large attached package of
solar-powered ion engines adding $150-200 million to the mission's cost, and
delaying its arrival at Pluto by five years (greatly raising the chances
that Pluto's scientifically important atmosphere would have frozen out by
then as the planet moves slowly farther away from the Sun).

According to Aviation Week, "Space science managers at agency headquarters
have concluded that the $120 million [added to NASA's budget] in the Senate
version of NASA's spending bill for Fiscal 2003 would be enough to keep New
Horizons working toward a January 2006 launch, and want to be ready if the
House goes along. The funds would support a move into final mission design
and selection of a launch vehicle, as well as the environmental impact work
that would be required because of the plutonium-charged electric generator
the spacecraft would carry."

This would seem to be confirmed by rumors that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
has now decided to endorse the 2006 launch of New Horizons, and last week
stopped preliminary work on its own design for the more expensive
solar-electric propelled Pluto probe that it would submit if NASA did ask
for a new design for the spacecraft. (Lockheed Martin - which collaborated
with JPL on the design of the "POSSE" Pluto probe which was New Horizons'
chief rival for selection in 2001 - stopped its own work and endorsed New
Horizons last March.)

Two other recent developments work in favor of the selection of this mission
for a 2006 launch. First, on Wednesday the first flight of the first
generation of Atlas 5 boosters - a more powerful version of which is one of
the two finalists to launch New Horizons - went flawlessly. (The other
finalist is the as-yet untested Delta 4.)

Second, preliminary analysis of data from Pluto's telescopically observed
occultation of a star on July 19 now indicates that its atmosphere is indeed
rapidly dropping in temperature, further increasing the importance of
getting a probe to the planet as quickly as possible in order to observe
Pluto's atmosphere before it freezes out completely.

At any rate, the disappearance of Contour has provided one final unexpected
chapter to the utterly fantastic "Perils of Pauline" saga of the effort to
persuade NASA to fly a Pluto probe, and not until some time next month will
we know whether the House will approve or reject New Horizons - or whether,
in that case, House-Senate negotiations will lead to its ultimate approval
by Congress.

Copyright 2002, SpaceDaily


MacArthur Chronicle, Australia, 27th August 2002

THERE'S been a lot about asteroids in the news lately.

In the scientific circles, it has been precise and unemotional, while in the
tabloid press it has been, well, face it: doom and gloom sells papers.

That's not to say that a large asteroid won't hit Earth one day. But the
last really big one (sic) was 65 million years ago (the dinosaur killer) and
astronomers estimate that such an impact will occur, on average, once every
100 million years. So the next big hit could be anytime in the next 35
million years.

My concern is the manner in which some news media distort facts for
sensationalism. The printed banner headlines "Asteroid to Hit Earth in
2019", for 1.2km wide asteroid 2002NT7, forgetting to report that
astronomers said there was less than one in a million chance of that

This frightens people unnecessarily. The odds have since been reduced to
virtually zero.

A recent non-reported event was that on August 18, an 800m long asteroid
(2002NY40) narrowly skimmed past Earth at 530,000km. That's just 1.3 times
the distance to the moon and only marginally smaller than 2002NT7.

Astronomers discovered it in July and predicted this near miss very
accurately yet it received no media attention (sic).

No doom factor, it seems. Back in July, a 100m asteroid missed Earth by
75,000km, less than a third the distance to the moon.

The moral of all this? Plan for your retirement with confidence, for a near
miss is as good as a mile.

* Robert Bee is a local writer and editor of the Journal of Macarthur
Astronomical Society. For questions, write to PO Box 17 Minto 2566, or email


Floods in the town of Ceske Budejovice including planetarium and public
observatory, the seat of the directorship and archive of the Klet Observatory.

Our country has been damaged by large floods considered as the worst natural
disaster in this region in 500 years. Several parts of Prague, the capital
of our country was damaged, as many other towns and villages, including
Ceske Budejovice, the town, where the seat of the directorship of the Klet
Observatory is located and Cesky Krumlov, pleasant historical UNESCO town,
located at the foot of the Klet mountain.

There were 0.45 m (1.5 ft) of flood water inside our building in Ceske
Budejovice, where is the seat of our directorship, planetarium and public
observatory working in education and presentation of solar system astronomy
including asteroids and comets for wide public and schools. It means 0.45-m
of flood water indoors the planetarium hall, lecture hall and intrance
exhibition hall and fully damaged basement with furnace gas room.

We spent three days to clean-up of water and mud, and reparations including
dehumidity are going to start. Fortunately there was no water in the first
and the second floor, so we hope and think that a computer network, library,
data projectors and so on survived (including Klet plate archive). We also
hope that the Zeiss planetarium, the only planetarium in Southern Bohemia,
itself was not damaged.

On the other hand, don't be afraid, the Klet Observatory itself on the top
of Klet mountain is still O.K. and Klet staff is ready for observing.

Jana Ticha
2002 Aug. 18



>From David H. Levy <>

Hi Benny,

Interesting essay on the Roman Empire! Even more so that the "fatal
weakness" of it was described in one sentence, yet it took Gibbon a lot more
to describe it!

Hope all is well.

All best


Dona nobis pacem.  (Grant us peace.)
--  Missale Romanum, and J. S. Bach, Mass in B Minor

David H. Levy
Jarnac Observatory, Inc.


>From Pavel Chichikov <>

Dear Benny,

I read with surprise, if not astonishment, in Ed Grondine's fascinating
essay on Impact and the End of the Roman Empire in the West, that St.
Columba was an adherent of the pelagian heresy.

The Catholic Church does not beatify heretics. Please see the following
article from the Catholic Encyclopedia for a corrective.

As for Pope Pelagius II being a pelagian heretic, he was so far from it that
he can be considered among the most orthodox of pontiffs. see:

I wish Mr. Grondine would get *everything* right, so that we could have
perfect confidence in his scholarship.

All best wishes.



>From E.P. Grondine <>

In these specific matters Pavel does not know what he is talking about, and
hence his reliance on the confusion of others as expressed through their
internet sites.  What one finds when one examines the source records is that
knowledge of the heretical views of both Saint Columba and Pelagius II has
been surpressed.

For example, one of the Irish lives has Columba called to Rome for endorsing
the "three chapters", which I am sure means nothing to most Conference
participants, but it will suffice to say that these writings were heretical.
All of the writings make reference to his problems with the "orthodox".
Pelagius II's actions in regard to the "three chapters" are also very well
documented .

One can expect a large amount of noise on these matters from some since as
Pelagius II was a heretic, or at least tolerated it, this will be seen by
them as a threat to the doctrine of papal infallablity.  As for Columba,
while I could discuss "mystery" religions as hallucinogenic cults, with
particular reference to Columba's brand of christianity, and his relations
with druids, and do so at length, and with reference to the archaeological
remains, I can't really see the point of doing it here, or of interfering
any more than I already have with those who find comfort in their beliefs.
Besides, for all his faults, I kind of like Columba, so why not keep him a

In hopefully leaving these matters behind, I want to say that I currently am
of the opinion that Copernicus had a better publishing plan than Galileo did
- have your work published after you die, and you don't have to face the



>From Private Eye (London), issue 1060, 9-22 August 2002.

"Under the Microscope" by "Boffin"

For four years now the media has had a new scare story with which to put us
off our breakfast: the asteroid on collision course with planet earth. The
latest is a mile-and-a-quarter lump of rock called 2002 NT7; and on 24 July
the nation's media screamed that at 11:47am on 1 February 2019 it would hit
the earth, destroying Life As We Know It.

The press rose hysterically to the occasion with gruesome descriptions of
shockwaves and blasts equivalent to "millions of atom bombs". The Daily
Telegraph gave a chilling account of how the space rock would hit the earth
at 18 miles a second. This would be "enough to wipe out a continent" and
throw up enough dust to block out the sun and cause global famine, chaos and
general wailing and gnashing of teeth.

To be fair the Telegraph littered its account with enough "coulds",
"possiblys" and "maybes" to make it clear this was the classic summer
science flyer - the armageddon-that-isn't. But less cautious was the
Express. Its dwindling band of readers were left in no doubt: "the world
ends" on collision day, the hysterical headline said.

So is it really time to forget paying into our pensions and live life for
the moment? Er, no. Although the headlines trumpeted that earth was doomed,
when you read the copy it was clear that it wasn't. The asteroid had only
been observed for a few weeks. Scientists only know its orbit to the most
approximate degree. "The error in our knowledge of where NT7 will be on 1
Feb 2019 is large, several tens of millions of kilometres," said NASA's Dr
Donald Yeomans. The odds, where odds were quoted were as 60,000-75,000
to one that the asteroid would hit - and they lengthened by the day.

Then, less than a week later, NASA announced that NT7 would definitely miss
the earth in 2019. But picking up the next day's papers one could have been
forgiven for thinking the end was still nigh. Save for a couple of tiny
stories buried at the bottom of the page, "Humanity not doomed after all" -
quite a good story on the face of it - received not a mention.

Commendably, the human race has started looking out for disreputable pieces
of space debris. But the fact is that major asteroid strikes are vanishingly
rare. Something as big as NT7 hits earth every three million years or so. It is
improbable that just four or five years after we start looking for such a monster,
we will find one due to hit in our lifetimes. Sooner or later
"asteroid to hit" will actually be true. But by then, having cried wolf one
silly season too many, we will all be too blasé to care, or even notice.

Copyright 2002, Private Eye

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