CCNet 68/2003 - 6 September 2003

By late in the week, however, the threat had evaporated, leaving many
journalists with egg on their faces and a heated debate among
astronomers. This alarm, along with the five previous over-hyped
warnings since 1997, could eventually undermine the reputation,
integrity and effectiveness of the small band of dedicated asteroid
hunters. As Yogi Berra would say, "It's déjà vu all over again."
    --Leon Jaroff, Time Magazine, 4 September 2003

One thing is for certain. There will be another object and another date
for Doomsday that will be retracted a day or so later.
And I wonder if we will soon begin to take no notice of false claims.
But then what happens when the big one comes?
-- David Whitehouse, 5 September 2003

If it was only a matter of waiting a day to discover whether or not the
danger was real, why didn't the experts keep it under their hats until
they had more information? The obvious answer is that the NEOIC exists
for the very purpose of frightening timid old ladies out of their wits.
That is its raison d'etre, and the jobs of its staff depend on it. If
they didn't warn us from time to time that the end of the world might be
nigh, somebody in Whitehall would decide that they were not earning
their keep.
    --Tom Utley, The Daily Telegraph, 6 September 2003












TIME Magazine, 4 September 2003,9565,482592,00.html

Why the media fuss over The Asteroid That's Going to Hit the Earth
was all wrong

Thursday, Sep. 04, 2003

It's been a tough week for the Earth, what with such headlines as "Earth
is Doomed" and "Armageddon set for March 21, 2014" appearing in news
media around the world. The threat came in the form of 2003QQ47, an
asteroid three-quarters of a mile wide that apparently was barreling
toward Earth with bad intentions for that March date in 2014. Some news
accounts warned that its explosive force upon impact would be 350,000
megatons, eight million times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

By late in the week, however, the threat had evaporated, leaving many
journalists with egg on their faces and a heated debate among
astronomers. This alarm, along with the five previous over-hyped
warnings since 1997, could eventually undermine the reputation,
integrity and effectiveness of the small band of dedicated asteroid
hunters. As Yogi Berra would say, "It's déjà vu all over again."

QQ47 was discovered August 24 by the automated LINEAR detection system
in New Mexico. A few points in its orbit were recorded and the
information was posted on the Jet Propulsion Lab Sentry website and that
of an Italian asteroid-hunting counterpart. Based on the early, sketchy
calculations of the asteroid's orbit, both groups gave QQ47 a modest
Torino rating of one. Torino ratings, so called because they were
adopted at a Near Earth Object (NEO) meeting in Turin, Italy, range from
zero (no likely consequences) to ten (certain collision). The rating of
one, originally assigned to QQ47, meant that it merited "careful

Ordinarily, the press might not have paid much attention to the LINEAR
discovery. But the British government's  NEO Information Center issued a
press release on the findings that was immediately picked up by the
Reuters news agency and spread around the world. While the press release
and the Reuters story mentioned the early, calculated odds of a
collision as only one in 909,000 and that the Torino rating was likely
to drop after further observations, David Morrison, a NASA Senior
Scientist, charges that "they still treated this as a serious warning of
a threat to Earth." Many astronomers agreed, fearing that the subtleties
would be lost on many journalists and the public. Turns out they were

In CCNet, a highly regarded Web site moderated by Benny Peiser, a
British anthropologist and NEO analyst, Peiser himself lashed out at the
NEO Information Center's decision to issue its press release. "It would
appear from that all the lessons learned from five years of our PR
blunders, media gaffes and errors of judgment have been forgotten.
Crying wolf becomes official policy." By mid-week, further observations
of QQ47's orbit led astronomers to drop its Torino rating to zero.

The Great (and short-lived) Asteroid Scare of 2003 was over, and QQ47 is
not an asteroid with the Earth's name on it. But in the interest of full
disclosure, there is an asteroid out there with my name on it. It's
called Jaroff 7829, it's five to six miles across and can be found in
the general vicinity of the orbit of Mars. And like me, it presents no
immediate threat to anyone             

Copyright 2003, Time Magazine


BBC News Online, 5 September 2003
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor 

Astronomers have issued the 'all-clear' about asteroid 2003 QQ47,
suspected by some to be on a possible collision course with the Earth in
just 11 years.
If it were to have hit, the 1.2 kilometre-wide (0.75 mile) rock would
have caused widespread damage and global climate change.

But new data indicates the Earth will be safe on 21 March 2014. In fact
it always was.

Asteroid 2003 QQ47 will be elsewhere in the Solar System, moving on an
orbit that will be watched by astronomers just in case it becomes
worrisome again, but that is highly unlikely.

'Own goal'

The scare started with a press release from the relatively newly
established Near Earth Object Information Centre (NEOIC). Funded with UK
government money, it is based at the National Space Centre.

The NEOIC said that an object, 2003 QQ47, had just been found that might
pose a small risk of colliding with us. It was rated as Torino Scale 1,
"deserves special monitoring".

It also said that any threat was likely to evaporate soon.

Many astronomers were unimpressed. They pointed out that Torino Scale 1
objects are found every few weeks and, since new objects are often given
an initial classification of T1, in the absence of information, it would
certainly be reduced to T0, "no significance", as more data came in.

The headlines about Doomsday were predictable, the date of 21 March 2014
became stuck in people's minds, some astronomers moaned about an "own
goal", and the media declined to mention the "all-clear" when it came a
day later.

If you think you have heard this type of thing before you are right. You

Perennially hazardous asteroids

Asteroid flaps are becoming as regular as the first cuckoo in Spring. We
get about one a year.

In 1998 there was 1997 XF11 due to strike in October 2028. It showed,
unsurprisingly, that different groups of astronomers disagreed about the
(low) chances of it striking us. With new observations the risk went

There was 1999 AN10. This taught astronomers a lot about how to release
their information about potentially hazardous objects to the public,
and, again unsurprisingly, that the media can read websites about such
objects. 1999 AN10 went away.

So, astronomers revised their rules for releasing information to the

The new millennium brought 2000 SG344, a very small object, which might
even be a spent rocket upper stage.

At one point astronomers claimed that it had a 1 in 500 chance of
striking the Earth, so media attention was immediate and justified. But
within hours new calculations showed no impact was possible, and
astronomers looked a little foolish.

The rules were changed, again.

Roll on 2002 and 2002 MN, a small asteroid that whizzed by at about a
third of the Earth-Moon distance, quite close really.

Because this happened without astronomers realising it until after the
event, some in the media suggested they had egg-on-their-face in not
providing any warning.

The scientists replied, slightly off the point, that it did not matter
as 2002 MN did not pose any danger anyway.

And then there was 2002 NT7.

'Most threatening object'

I have regard for 2002 NT7, as far as one can for a rock that could
threaten the Earth, as I broke the story and it won me an award.

It had a large diameter and was described by one expert as 'the most
threatening object ever found in space.' Fortunately, and as predicted
in my original report, the threat receded.

Initially astronomers said nothing about it. They were following their
media rules modified after the SG 344 incident. After NT7 those rules
were revised once again.

One thing is for certain. There will be another object and another date
for Doomsday that will be retracted a day or so later.

And I wonder if we will soon begin to take no notice of false claims.

But then what happens when the big one comes?

Copyright 2003, BBC


The Daily Telegraph, 6 September 2003

main comment of the day
by Tom Utley

I cannot think of a nicer way to die than being struck on the head by a
huge asteroid, without warning, obliterated in the twinkling of an eye,
along with all my near and dear and most of the rest of humanity. Nobody
would be left to grieve for me, and that instantaneous oblivion would
leave me no time to grieve for those whom I love. Ah, to cease upon the
midnight with no pain. Waydago.

I say "without warning", because a warning would completely destroy the
beauty of the Asteroid-Death Experience. It is fine by me if the world
is to end on Saturday, March 21, 2014. Just don't tell me about it 11
years in advance.

The more I think about it, the more extraordinary seems the decision of
the publicly funded Near Earth Object Information Centre (NEOIC) to tell
us on Tuesday that Asteroid 2003/QQ47, two thirds of a mile wide and
with a mass of about 2.6 billion tons, appeared to be on a
collision-course for our planet. True, Dr Alan Fitzsimmons of the NEOIC
was at pains to stress the unlikelihood that we would be hit. "I would
say that there is no cause for concern at all," he said, putting the
odds against a strike at 909,000 to one. All I can say is that I was not
in the least bit concerned, actually, until Dr Fitzsimmons came along
and told me that this colossal lump of rock was belting towards us at 21
miles per second, threatening to strike with an impact 20 million times
greater than the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. ("Hi!
You're going to be shot! But there's really no cause for concern,
because the gunman will almost certainly miss.")

The warning was all the more remarkable for being so quickly withdrawn.
Barely 24 hours after the NEOIC had raised the alarm, word came from
Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasedena, California, that it was
all a big mistake. Asteroid 2003/QQ47 was not going to hit us after all
- a view later confirmed by the NEOIC.

If it was only a matter of waiting a day to discover whether or not the
danger was real, why didn't the experts keep it under their hats until
they had more information? The obvious answer is that the NEOIC exists
for the very purpose of frightening timid old ladies out of their wits.
That is its raison d'etre, and the jobs of its staff depend on it. If
they didn't warn us from time to time that the end of the world might be
nigh, somebody in Whitehall would decide that they were not earning
their keep.

Kevin Yates, project manager of NEOIC in Leicester, had a rather
different explanation. "Openly sharing this sort of information in a
non-sensationalist way should help to dispel the popular myth that
governments and astronomers would keep the discovery of dangerous
asteroids secret," he said. "I hope the coverage of this story will give
the general public more of a feel for how the assessment of risk evolves
over time as more observations are made." He did not go on to explain
why it was important that the public should have a feel for the
evolution of risk-assessment.

I would have thought that, should a genuine danger arise, the less we
all knew about it, the happier we would be. I can see the point of the
NEOIC's warning us about small asteroids. If it was known that Chipping
Sodbury would be pulverised at lunchtime next Wednesday, the people at
the information centre would be performing a valuable service by warning
the local residents to pack their bags and get out of its way. But if
half the planet is to be destroyed by the equivalent of 20 million
Hiroshimas, only the most dreadful harm could come of broadcasting the

You can be sure, for a start, that nothing could be done to deflect the
course of an asteroid the size of 2003/QQ47. The idea of firing nuclear
missiles at it belongs strictly to the realm of science fiction. It
would clearly be impossible, too, to organise the evacuation of an
entire hemisphere - and, anyway, life on the other side of the planet
would be insufferable in the nuclear winter that would follow such a

Let's face it, all of humanity would be doomed, and no earthly good
could come of tipping us off in advance. Imagine what would happen if we
knew for certain that we would be obliterated on a given date, 11 years
hence. The world's financial system would immediately begin to collapse,
starting with the pension funds. As doomsday drew closer, civil order
would break down everywhere. There would be orgies of rape and looting
(assuming that anybody would have bothered to go on making anything
worth looting). What might have been a perfect end for billions, left in
blissful ignorance to be snuffed out in a split-second, would be
transformed by the NEOIC into 11 years of hell.

Far better, surely, for the astronomers to keep quiet. I can see only
one justification for issuing a warning. It is a doctrine of my Church
that a sinner who repents, even in the moment before death - "'twixt
stirrup and the ground" - will be qualified for salvation. Out of
Christian charity, therefore, the NEOIC should perhaps give us a few
minutes' notice of our doom, so as to allow us to make our peace with
our Maker.

I don't know about you, but I have a huge amount to repent of. I think
of the mountains of readers' letters that I have left unanswered. I
think of the many casual cruelties that I have inflicted by my pen. Only
the other week for example, I unthinkingly cracked an unfunny joke about
sufferers from what used to be called repetitive strain injury (RSI),
suggesting that only socialists and trade unionists were so afflicted.
It has been weighing heavily on my conscience ever since.

I don't know much about RSI, but I do know that it is no respecter of
politics, and that its victims fear for their livelihoods. They are not
malingerers or litigious money-grubbers. I know from their letters that
I increased their suffering, and I am very sorry about that. But there
is no room here to make a full confession of my sins. I asked the people
at the NEOIC for a few minutes' notice of my doom. On second thoughts,
could they please make that a few hours?
Copyright 2003, The Daily Telegraph

============ LETTERS ===========


Nigel Holloway <>

Benny et al,

We seem to have these scares periodically. Watching as a non-involved
(in observations etc) person the process actually seems quite reasonable
to me:

we see something coming very roughly towards us, so without knowing its
orbit accurately it 'could' hit (probability undefined but not
absolutely zero). Then later we get to know the orbit more accurately
and (so far) we know that it's going to miss.

A thought I have had on this is:

When we first see a new object, we can quickly determine the time ot
the first (and subsequent) "hit or near-miss" - in this last case it
was 11 years and I presume that was known to a small fraction of a year.

The accuracy of the orbit knowledge increases with time. In the absence
of pre-discovery, the linear uncertainty of the posiiton at near
-passage must decrease roughly in proportion ot the time observed.

It may be possible to determine a reasonable relationship between time
observed and probability of hitting, assuming that the earth remains in
the shrinking 'target zone'. It would then be possible to make
statements like:

Within T of first observation, the probability of a hit can't be
higher than X if the time to a possible hit is Y

Thus, for example, if an object was discovered yesterday, any claim that
it 'may hit the earth' (a colloquial interpretation of (say) more than 1
in a thousand probability) would be non-credible unless that hit was to
occur very soon. If the possible hit were 20 yerars away it would take
longer to determine an orbit with an accuracy corresponding to a 0.001
hit probability and, until that time had elapsed, it would not be
to claim anything other than 'we are watching it'. Once the 0.001
probability was reached, the statement 'This might hit the earth' could
become reasonable if the earth were still in the target zone.

Thus, my question is: Can a relationship of this type be derived from
observational uncertainties and orbital mechanics?  It might provide the
basis of a rationale for when the view of a newly discovered object
should change from 'We don't know the orbit' to either 'It might hit' or
'It will definitely miss'.

Obviously there are other points to sort out as well - eg at what
probability level should one consider 'This might hit the Earth' to
become a 'reasonable press statement'.

The analysis suggested above could be a reasonable basis for a protocol
along the lines of:

      1) Observe a new asteroid
      2) Assess the time to possible impact
      3) From that, derive the accuracy corresponding to 0.001
      4) Assess how long observation must continue to get that accuracy
      5) After that observation time has elapsed and the accuracy
         achieved, announce a 'possible hit' if still true
      6) If a 'miss' can be declared earlier, then an earlier
         announcement could be made.
      7) If a pre-discovery occurs, go back to (3) and if (4) now gives
         'no extra time' announce the result as in (5) or (6).

This seems to me to be a reasonable protocol for the avoidance of
'crying Wolf'. It avoids 'possible hit' claims that the accuracy of the
observations cannot possibly support. I would expect the observational
science to be able to justify something like this. I would expect Mark
and David already to have a rough idea of the relationship between 'days
since first observed' and 'years to impact' corresponding to a
probability ~0.001.



David Asher <>

Dear Nigel / Benny

Those ideas make sense. Regarding "at what probability level" I'd
probably go for a bit lower than 0.001, since for say a 1 km object,
the per year chance of an impact by an as yet unknown object is 1E-5
(many people would say rather less, but this is the right order of
magnitude).  Actually this is what the "Palermo scale" does, comparing
the probability of a specific impact to the background probability from
objects of the same size. The Palermo scale is neat and logical, unlike
the absurd "Torino scale".

I'm not keeping up with literature as I should. I know that some years
ago there was an analysis of how orbital uncertainty for main belt
objects related to timespan of observation. Working out a general rule
for NEOs would I suspect be harder, given the huge possible variation in
observing geometry (distance of NEO from Earth when observed etc.). 
The art of evaluating probabilities on a case by case basis (i.e. for
each specific object) is fairly well established now, indeed it's how
published probabilities are computed. The probability calculations
depend on various idealisations of course; so one should always note
that caveat, even though lots of people don't!  (Rob McNaught's 1993
precovery of Hale-Bopp after discovery in 1995 was wrongly said to be
incorrect because it was inconsistent with the position predicted by the
idealisation - never let an observed fact get in the way of a nice
theoretical idealisation!)

I imagine that working out an empirical general rule for NEOs could be
done though may be quite a bit of work (not sure if anyone's attempted

(By "idealisations", I mean for example your model of the errors in the
observations of a given object.  E.g. you may assume all observations of
a given object have the same 1-sigma error whereas in reality one
observatory may routinely observe more accurately than another.)



Mark Bailey <>

I think this is a very sensible approach, and I'm sure the experts would
already have most of the necessary figures at their fingertips. For
example, a rough rule of thumb might be: "an object that has an arc of
x days can be predicted into the future to an accuracy of (say) 100km
for c.x days." If the issue is whether or not the Earth might be hit,
then assuming a simple linear expansion of that figure would give
c.60x days (i.e. for a precision of c.6000km). Thus, an object with
an arc of 7 days could realistically be extrapolated into the future
with a precision indicating possible impact on the Earth only for c.1.5
years, anything more than this being (as you say) unjustified on the
basis of the available observations. Don't trust the exact figures, but
they probably give a reasonable feel for the problem.




Robert Matthews <>

Dear Benny
You're clearly infuriated by the failure of the media to "retract and
correct" its coverage of the encounter with 2003 QQ47. Perhaps you'll
permit me to offer some thoughts from the media side of the argument.
First, I've yet to come across any coverage of the story that didn't
mention the far-off date of the putative event and/or its low
probability. Some even mentioned that in all likelihood the impact
probability would drop to zero once more observations came in.
Second, the only reason the story got the coverage it did was that (a)
we're still in the fag-end of the silly season (b) every news editor
believes we could use a "Fancy that !" story right now, with everything
else (Iraq, Palestine, Hutton etc) being so grim.
These two points underpin the general failure of the media to "retract
and correct" its coverage. The basic facts as reported were correct - as
was the overall tenor of the coverage, which was that this encounter is
not something that we need put immediately at the very top of our
personal agenda. There are many stories like this -  medical
"breakthroughs" that fail to pan out after five years; eco-disasters
that don't materialise; financial disasters that don't happen. Each has
a timescale on the order of several years, the basic facts are correctly
reported at the time (and thus do not merit a "retraction"), but as the
years roll by, the lack of coverage can be taken as a pretty good sign
that it just fell by the wayside, and becomes its own correction.
The encounter with 2003 QQ47 is just such a story. Have you or your
colleagues come across any (sane) person who has given up their job, hit
the bottle or indeed lost a single night's sleep because of last week's
coverage ? Is there anyone outside the academic community who feels
outraged at not being told the denouement of a story whose focus was
over a decade into the future ?
On the other hand, I have certainly met people who have mentioned the
story with a big smile on their face, saying "Well, what a load of
nonsense that is !". It is this that, I suggest, should really concern
the NEO community about last week's media coverage: the fact that their
work is now seen as a source of silly season stories to make people
smile, rather than prompt governments into action.
All best wishes
Robert Matthews
(Science Correspondent, The Sunday Telegraph, London)

Kelly Beatty <>


Sky & Telescope did not report anything about 2003 QQ47 because we knew,
as is inherent in these discoveries, that follow-on observations would
quickly either eliminate the risk entirely or increase it significantly
(even dramatically). Only in the latter case is news coverage warranted.
When Rick Binzel was formulating the Torino Scale, he asked a couple
science writers (including me) about its usefulness as a tool for the
news media. Obviously our original enthusiasm for the TS's utility was
misplaced: many of my colleagues just don't "get it." So let me draw the
first line in the sand: Sky & Telescope will not report on near-Earth
objects with a Torino Scale ranking of 0 or 1. (The only exceptions will
be those objects bright enough to be observable by amateur astronomers.)
I encourage other news organizations to adopt this metric as well.

Kelly Beatty
Executive Editor


Phil Plait <>

Hi Benny-

Just a point about one of the items in today's CCNET mail about the
ability to detect comets at great distances, specifically Comet Hallet:

> This is great news to the NEO community, since it points to
> the feasibility of predicting impacts from 10km comets several
> decades prior to the event, when they are well beyond the orbit
> of Neptune. - On condition that we scour the skies for them of
> course, but should funding be a question at all when the survival
> of our civilization, if not our species, on planet Earth is at stake?

Feasibility, yes, practicality... well, maybe not. The Halley image was
the sum of 81 individual images totalling 9 hours over three nights,
taken with three (!) 8.2 meter telescopes. It must have taken weeks to
reduce that data. And they saw Halley. Barely.

Don't get me wrong, this is a very impressive feat, and a real technical
achievment. I was amazed when I saw the image! But it doesn't really
point to nailing down previously-unknown incoming comets at great
distances just yet. We are having enough trouble getting asteroid and
comet searches funded with meter-class telescopes, so saying it takes
three 8 meter telescopes several nights to barely see a comet we already
knew was there, well, that might be a bit premature. I think we need to
concentrate on what we really can do right now, and build from there.


*    *    *    *    *    The Bad Astronomer    *    *    *    *

Phil Plait          
The Bad Astronomy Web Page:


San Francisco Chronicle, 5 September 2003

David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor

Calamitous forecast for Earth
Scientists envision a planet of hellacious heat, glacial cold

Monterey -- Two scientists quoted no less a poet than Robert Frost to
underscore an extraordinarily gloomy long-term forecast for the future
of both Earth and Mars, in a presentation to astronomers here Wednesday.

"Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice," Frost wrote in

In a mere 7.5 billion years from now, both will inevitably come true,
according to Jeffrey S. Kargel, an astronomer-geologist with U.S.
Geological Survey, and Bruce Fegley Jr., a professor of planetary
chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis.

The bright and pleasant sun of today, they said, will grow into a "red
giant" so hot and huge it will "almost but not quite engulf the Earth"
and create a catastrophe that's unimaginable.

Though their presentation to the American Astronomical Society's
Division of Planetary Sciences meeting here was couched in mathematical
equations and complex diagrams, Kargel simplified it in a description
for reporters.

What will happen, he said, is this:

The sun's energy will multiply by 2,800 times. The solar heat will melt
the entire crust and inner mantle of both Earth and Mars, creating vast
oceans of molten rock hundreds of miles deep.

All life on Earth, of course, will long since have become extinct -- on
Mars, too, if there is any -- and temperatures will rise: first by 3,000
degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than any known volcano, and
ultimately, some 68 million years later, to at least 4,000 degrees.

"Earth will glow like a star itself," said Kargel, while the Martian
temperature will merely reach the heat of molten basalt.

"Strange continents of sodium, potassium, aluminum and calcium will
float on the molten ocean, and glaciers of silicon, iron and magnesium
will flow down from the continents into the molten sea," Kargel said.

"Just imagine glaciers of magnesia!" he said.

So violent will the giant sun become, Kargel and Fegley predicted, that
Earth's rotation might stop completely, trapped in the giant sun's outer

If that does happen, they predicted, the side of Earth in shadow would
have temperatures more than 400 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, all the
while whipped by tempestuously hot winds sweeping down from the sunlit

"It will be a hellacious place," said Kargel. Kargel is a space
scientist with the astrogeology program of the U. S. Geological Survey
in Flagstaff, Ariz. While Kargel spoke at the meeting in Monterey,
Fegley spoke to The Chronicle by telephone from his office at Washington

Fegley's main role, he said, was to provide Kargel the math and
chemistry software for their predictions. Much of their conclusions were
based on data from satellites and space probes that have examined the
chemistry of comets and meteors -- plus observations of the violent
volcanic activity observed by the Galileo spacecraft on Io, a major
satellite of the planet Jupiter.

"Kargel's conclusions are extremely innovative," Fegley said, "and they
need to be followed up. I'm very confident in the calculations, and I
think he has a great idea."

Copyright 2003, San Francisco Chronicle

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