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CCNet 53/2003 - 23 June 2003
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"We cannot justify the effort for discovery [of NEOs] unless we can safeguard our planet."
    --Andrea Milani, University of Pisa


"They don't build tornado shelters in Germany. Cities don't buy snowplows in Florida. And there's no pressing need to worry about deflection of incoming NEOs at the moment. Current funding for the NEO impact risk assessment programs is sufficiently supported given the available funding for all scientific research."
    --Robert Jedicke, Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii
 

"Governments have the responsibility to deal with a lot of problems afflicting humankind. But these same governments must realize that large asteroid or comet impact has the potential to wipe out all other problems. On the other hand, the general public in developing countries has a host of other problems than the possibility that a large bolide could wipe out mankind. If your first concern is to have shelter and food, if HIV/Aids and unemployment are your daily worries, you cannot be expected to be wary of meteorite impact."
    --Wolf Reimold, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa


(1) NEO RESEARCHERS ARGUE ABOUT NEED FOR MORE FUNDING

(2) METEORITE CRASH SITE LOCATED IN SIBERIA

(3) A SPACE-AGE VIEW OF OUR ASTEROID CATACLYSM

(4) JULY A BIG MONTH FOR ASTEROID SCIENCE IN AUSTRALIA

(5) COSMIC IMPACT AND CONSTANTINE'S VISION

(6) UNDER THE BOTTOM LINE: SHIRT BURNT BY A METEORITE

(7) AND FINALLY: TRUTH TELLER SPELLS DOOM AND GLOOM

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(1) NEO RESEARCHERS ARGUE ABOUT NEED FOR MORE FUNDING

National Geographic News, 19 June 2003
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/06/0619_030619_killerasteroids.html

KILLER ASTEROIDS: A REAL BUT REMOTE RISK

By John Roach

It is almost certain that Earth will be hit by an asteroid large enough to exterminate a large percentage of our planet's life, including possibly over a billion people, according to researchers. But as such cataclysmic collisions occur on average only once in a million years or so, are they really worth worrying about?

At some point in the geological future a large chunk of rock and ice will smack into Earth and destroy life as we know it. This is a cold, sober, scientific fact, according to Andrea Milani, a researcher at the University of Pisa in Italy.

"A future impact from, say, a 1-kilometer [0.62 mile]-diameter asteroid is, rather than just probable, almost certain over a time span of a million years," he said.

The heavily impact-cratered front side of the moon, with older impact basins ranging in size from more than thousands to hundreds of kilometers in diameter. Fresh impact crater Tycho, at bottom, measures 85 km (53 miles) in diameter. This is a false-color composite of 15 Galileo images from December 8, 1992. The moon is evidence of constant asteroid impact in the earth's orbit.

Wolf Reimold, a geoscientist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, said a 1-kilometer-wide asteroid would produce an impact crater of about 12 miles (20 kilometers) in diameter and wipe out an area the size of the United Kingdom. The human toll would depend on where such an impact occurs.

"Estimates may range from 500,000 to 1.5 billion casualties," he said. "This latter number certainly smells of global nuclear war. Such an event would in all likelihood not wipe out mankind, but it would cause a global economic crisis."

Given the real threat of impact by a so-called near Earth object (NEO) and the consequences for human life, Milani and Reimold are urging the worldwide scientific community, and the agencies that fund their research, to take the field of impact mitigation seriously.

In separate papers appearing in the June 20 issue of the journal Science, Milani and Reimold outline what is known about the impact threat and how impacts have shaped the geologic and life history of Earth.

They agree that the developed world has made great strides over the past few decades in NEO research, but say that more funding is required to raise public awareness of the impact risk and to determine how to thwart an incoming object.

"Governments have the responsibility to deal with a lot of problems afflicting humankind. But these same governments must realize that large asteroid or comet impact has the potential to wipe out all other problems, including mankind," said Reimold.

Impact Science

Impacts of meteorites, asteroids, and comets are frequent events on a geological time scale, said Milani. They have shaped the surface of the Earth and altered the course of life that thrives upon it.

For example, 65 million years ago a 6.2-mile (10 kilometer)-diameter asteroid impact resulted in a 100-million-megaton explosion that excavated a 112-mile (180 kilometer)-wide crater on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and brought the dinosaur era to an end.

Events such as the impact implicated in the dinosaur extinction happen on the order of once every 100 million years. Smaller objects collide with Earth with greater frequency. Asteroids large enough to cause ocean-wide tsunamis, for example, happen once every 63,000 years.

In 1998 NASA accepted the responsibility of compiling a catalog of at least 90 percent of NEOs of 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) in diameter or greater and to assess the probability that any of them will impact Earth. Such events are believed to happen on the order of about once every 1 million years.

To date the NASA initiative, known as Spaceguard, has identified 585 objects of 1 kilometer or greater. Most of them have no chance of impact and those that do have only a very low probability. Scientists estimate there are about 1,000 NEOs, so NASA is more than halfway to accomplishing its goal.

Reimold notes that this initiative and projects such as the British Taskforce on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects and the Intercontinental Scientific Drilling Program into the Chicxulub crater in Mexico have helped scientists understand the risks and consequences of collisions with asteroids and comets.

The developing world, he said, is slower to catch on, but a movement by astronomers and geoscientists in South Africa to establish a National Working Group to assess NEO impact risk and mitigation is gaining traction.

"On the other hand, the general public in developing countries has a host of other problems than the possibility that a large bolide could wipe out mankind," he said. "If your first concern is to have shelter and food, if HIV/Aids and unemployment are your daily worries, you cannot be expected to be wary of meteorite impact."

More Mitigation Funding?

Writing in Science, Milani says that the scientific community should take on the responsibility to investigate all objects that could potentially impact Earth "down to the size compatible with available technology and with the public perception of acceptable risk."

According to Milani, a reasonable goal would be to detect within the next ten to 20 years 90 percent of the NEOs over 1,000 feet (300 meters) in diameter and 97 percent of those greater than 1 kilometer in diameter.

To accomplish this goal, Milani says that understanding and awareness of the impact risk must be raised amongst the public and the agencies that provide the requisite funding to perform the work.

"If [funds] are provided, the scientists would know how to use them efficiently," he said. "If resources dedicated to this task are not provided, the scientists have difficulties in canceling other worthwhile basic research to make resources available for impact risk assessment."

Reimold said that more money ought to also be made available for research into known and potential impact sites. Currently, he said, only a few impact sites older than 300 million years are known, but that many more should be out there.

"Ongoing detailed geological analysis of known impact structures is a must in order to further improve our knowledge of the impact process and its devastating results," he said.

Robert Jedicke, an asteroid expert with the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, said that "it would be nice" if asteroid researchers had more money but that current funding for the NEO impact risk assessment programs is sufficiently supported given the available funding for all scientific research.

"There's only so much money to go around," he said. "So if the pot gets split there's less stew for the rest of the astronomical/scientific community."

NEO Deflection

As NEO researchers continue to search the skies for objects that pose an impact risk, they are also beginning discussions on how to deflect an object on a collision course with Earth.

One of the issues being explored is the interior structure of asteroids. If the interior is weak, for example, an attempt to deflect it with a nuclear warhead (an option under consideration) may simply breakup the asteroid into many smaller and uncontrolled pieces.

Milani writes that such investigations are a valid extension of the NASA and European Space Agency NEO programs and make logical sense: "We cannot justify the effort for discovery unless we can safeguard our planet."

Jedicke said that we are not currently prepared to deflect an incoming asteroid, but that there is no reason to be alarmed because there is little chance that an asteroid even as small as 330 feet (100 meters) will hit Earth within the next 100 years.

"They don't build tornado shelters in Germany. Cities don't buy snowplows in Florida. And there's no pressing need to worry about deflection of incoming NEOs at the moment," he said.

Copyright 2003, National Geographic News

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(2) METEORITE CRASH SITE LOCATED IN SIBERIA

CNN, 20 June 2003
http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/space/06/20/russia.meteorite.ap/

MOSCOW (AP) -- A group of scientists say they have found the spot in Siberia where a giant meteorite came crashing to Earth last year.

The researchers from the Kosmopoisk, or Space Search, research group told Rossiya state television Thursday that they believe a burned-out tract of taiga about 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) north of the city of Irkutsk is the spot where one or more meteorites fell on September 25.

Vadim Chernobrov, Kosmopoisk's coordinator, said the meteorite crash was "comparable to the force of a medium atomic bomb."

"In other words, this is a colossal historic event," he told Rossiya. "I'm simply happy that we were the first at the epicenter."

Chernobrov said that after examining the site, the research team believes two meteorites actually fell, not just one, as previously thought.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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(3) A SPACE-AGE VIEW OF OUR ASTEROID CATACLYSM

The Australian, 18 June 2003
http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,6615713%5E2702,00.html

By Benjamin Haslem

NO, it's not Mars, although it was shortlisted by NASA as a training site for a planned manned expedition to the red planet.

It's Gosses Bluff, 160km west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, one of the best-preserved meteorite craters in the world, as seen from the International Space Station.

The serenity of the outback site belies the cataclysm that occurred 142 million years ago when a 2km-wide asteroid slammed into the western end of the Macdonnell Ranges, unleashing an explosion equivalent to a million Hiroshima atom bombs.

The asteroid penetrated 5km into the planet's surface, forming a crater 24km wide.

First seen by European eyes in 1872, when explorer Earnest Giles passed through a land sacred to the Western Arrente Aborigines, this space-age view was captured by astronaut Ed Lu with a hand-held digital camera 391km above Earth.

Released by NASA yesterday, the image shows a central ring of hills about 4.5km in diameter, rising 200m above Missionary Plain. The original crater ring can be made out as a greyish feature surrounding the circle of hills.

The photograph is one of more than 320,000 of Earth taken by NASA astronauts since the first Mercury missions in 1961.

Gosses Bluff was shortlisted for the Mars training site because of its isolation and terrain, according to Mars Society Australia spokeswoman Jennifer Laing. NASA joined the society - a lobby group hoping to involve Australia in a mission to the red planet - in scouring the outback for a site in October 2001.

Arkaroola, in South Australia's Flinders Ranges, was chosen and the society is trying to raise $1 million to build the centre.

Three similar centres have been built in Iceland, the Canadian Arctic and the US state of Utah.

Copyright 2003, The Australian

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(4) JULY A BIG MONTH FOR ASTEROID SCIENCE IN AUSTRALIA

Michael Paine <mpaine@tpg.com.au>

During July many international experts on asteroids will visit New South Wales. The Australian Festival of Astronomy, in conjunction with the International Astronomical Union's 25th General Assembly will be held Sydney in July 2003. As part of the festival there will be a public forum on the danger to our civilisation from asteroid impacts. http://www.mso.anu.edu.au/%7Eiauxxv/events.shtml

Thursday July 17 - 7.00 pm - Public forum with Dr Alan Harris from the Space Science Institute Colorado, Dr Andrea Milani from the University of Pisa and Dr David Morrison from the NASA Astrobiology Institute on "The Danger from Space: Are Near Earth Objects a Catastrophe Waiting to Happen?" at the Darling Harbour Convention Centre. Talk moderated by Karl Kruszelnicki.

Later in July the international Minor Planet (asteroid and comet) Workshop will be held at Port Stephens: http://www.nelsonbay.com/%7Egc/AMPW.htm

Also over the next few weeks the OECD (yes - an economic organisation) is expected to formally release its final report on dealing with the impact hazard (see http://www.oecd.org/pdf/M00040000/M00040131.pdf )
That report is expected to recommend that an international effort be put into finding potentially hazardous asteroids down to several hundred metres in diameter (that is, more objects than the current NASA target of 90% of objects 1 kilometre or larger by 2008). The OECD project also
raised the need for a major search facility in the Southern Hemisphere (none has existed since the Australian program shut down in 1996).

Unfortunately Prime Minister Howard's concern, expressed in 1997, that the Spaceguard issue might be slipping through the cracks in the (budget/portfolio) tiles has not been addressed. Many of the international experts who will be visiting Sydney in July signed a letter to Mr Howard in January 2002, calling on Australia to rejoin Spaceguard. (see http://www4.tpg.com.au/users/horsts/pr_oz_sg.htm ) Science Minister Peter McGauran subsequently indicated that a government decision would not be made until the OECD project was finalised.

The events this July provide an excellent opportunity for Australia to rejoin the international Spaceguard program, particularly with the government's new focus on protecting Australians from man-made and natural disasters. The US Air Force is a major participant in current asteroid search efforts in the Northern Hemisphere and there is a good case for the asteroid hazard being treated as a defence issue in Australia. Understandably, Australian astronomers have been reluctant to recommend to the government that priority be given to asteroid programs
when the precious science research funds are allocated each year but they might provide difference advice if they were asked to advise on allocation of defence funds. After all, we looking at a few million dollars to set up the facility (less if surplus equipment can be used)
and less than $500 thousand per year to run it. This is a very small percentage of the defence budget. Co-incidentally, the annual risk of an asteroid impact severely affecting Australia (by either direct impact, tsunami or global disaster) is about 1 in 500,000.

Michael Paine
NSW Co-ordinator
The Planetary Society Australian Volunteers
Ph Sydney 02 94514870  Fax 02 94015922

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(5) COSMIC IMPACT AND CONSTANTINE'S VISION

David J. Ross <djross@RAEX.COM>
[posted on HASTRO-L@LISTSERV.WVU.EDU]

Regarding the asteroid impact, I would have to agree that reports of Constantine's famous vision seem far too plastic to make it possible to connect them to this supposed event.  It's hard to know what contemporary witnesses might make of seeing the preceeding meteor and the "mushroom cloud"  -  would it not be something like lightning and then something like the volcanoes familiar to those on the Italian pennisula?  The relatively calm descriptions of the labarum, either the chi-rho or staurogram sign, don't seem to capture anything like such an explosion.

Not that I am immune to the lure of unbridled specualtion, though! There have been attempts, my own included, to link C's vision with cosmic imagery of one sort or another.  It was, afterall, something that he reportedly saw in the sky.  At the risk of encouraging the present rabbit hunt (the following is well known to those interested in C. anyway), the pagan panegyric to  Constantine by Nazarius, delivered in 321 or nearly a decade after 312, seems a bit more suggestive. Referring to Constantine's victory over Maxentius, Nazarius notes that it was..."the talk of all the Gauls that armies were seen which let it be known that they had been divinely sent. And although heavenly things are not in the habit of coming before men's eyes... your helpers submitted to being seen and heard... Their flashing shields were aflame with something dreadful; their celestial weaponry was ablaze with a terrible glow..." (In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini, C. Nixon and B. Rodgers, eds. and trans.,  Univ. of California
Press.) With J. B. Firth, in his 1905 biography of the Emperor, I've wondered whether there was "some unusual manifestation in the sky whice was the common basis of the stories of Eusebius and Nazarius." (Constantine The Great, Putnam's, 1905, p. 101.)  My own "low impact" interpretation has been merely to suggest tracing the origin of the Christian recognition of a cross in Cygnus to C's vision.( http://www.twcac.org/onlinehorizon/cross.htm )

The discovery of the impact site is certainly fascinating, however, and the free exercise of speculation sure can be fun! But, in the end, I'm afraid the historians will be quick to remind us that the evidence presently available on Constatine is pretty thin to begin with.  I doubt it can be made to support very much along these line...

Dave Ross

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(6) UNDER THE BOTTOM LINE: SHIRT BURNT BY A METEORITE

The Guardian, 21 June 2003
http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,981874,00.html

Susie Steiner
 
Cornelia Parker has provoked controversy ever since she persuaded the actor Tilda Swinton to sleep in a glass case for a week, and called it The Maybe. She is also known for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), a shed suspended as if at the moment of detonation. Born in Cheshire in 1956, Parker attended Gloucestershire College of Art and Design, then Wolverhampton Polytechnic, where she studied sculpture. Last month, she exhibited at the Days Like These triennial at Tate Britain, for which she wrapped a mile of string around Rodin's sculpture The Kiss.

Parker created Shirt Burnt By A Meteorite by first buying a 15cm meteorite (for £300; it had landed in Namibia in the 1800s), then heating it with a blowtorch and applying it to a man's shirt. 'A lot of my work is about defying gravity, for example, my suspended work,' says Parker. 'I like the idea that, as an artist, I can determine where a meteorite is going to land. The shirt is quite tragicomic - it's just an ordinary shirt that's had something extraordinary happen to it.' ...

Reaction after one week

'My mum came in the next day and said, "I don't believe it. I could do that." I started defending it, saying, "There's a process behind this." Yet I couldn't answer it for myself. A friend came to see it on the Friday and said, "But there's no skill."

'On the Saturday, my brother, who's a builder, had his kids here. We all had a laugh about it: burning your underpants, that sort of thing. Then all of a sudden it turned into quite a philosophical debate about art, which I've never had with my brother....

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(7) AND FINALLY: TRUTH TELLER SPELLS DOOM AND GLOOM

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 22 June 2003
http://starbulletin.com/2003/06/22/business/brandao.html

Curt Brandao
 
In a recent, widely published report, British scientist Martin Rees estimates a 50 percent chance the end of the world is nigh, up from 20 percent 100 years ago. It's hard to guess which bodily orifice he pulled these numbers from, but since he's both a scientist and British, we can only accept his conjecture as meticulously primped and sanitized (post-wash-closet).

Thus many Respectable People have taken Rees' research to heart, using what time they have left to reflect, get their spiritual house in order and put enough cat food out for Fluffy to purr solo through the coming apocalypse.

Digital Slobs, however, are likely to soldier on, re-enlisting in fantasy football as if we're all going to live forever. True, a few lesser-evolved Slobs might use Rees' research to taunt their great-grandparents, who still whine about how tough things were in the good ol' days. "There was only a 20 percent chance of global doom in the early 1900s, Nana! That's nothin'," Slobs might scream during spiteful scenes at assisted-living facilities, as their Nanas sit too stunned to put any rock in their rocking chairs. "Sure, maybe you walked barefoot four miles to school every day, but the Ebola virus is going to melt me from the inside out! Who's got it tough, now, Nana!?"

Generational one-upmanship aside, Rees asserts even money on cataclysm by weighing the risks of natural disasters, bioterror and scientific missteps as we recklessly poke around the DNA double helix, risking a genetic avalanche. But if Rees knew what this Digital Slob knows, his calculations would tilt further toward doom.

I've come across a seemingly innocuous gadget that might, once perfected, unleash a force more poisonous than SARS, global warming and all the "American Idol Junior" contestants put together: The truth.

The Handy Truster (www.handytrusters.com) touts itself as the world's first portable lie detector, and is no doubt burning bridges as we speak. The Truster takes a few seconds to "baseline" someone's voice, then detects slight vocal-chord variations to uncover lies. It can even attach to cell phones, sizing up callers surreptitiously. If someone tells the truth, the LED display shows an apple; if they're lying, it shows a worm. And it sells for only $25.

Surely, the world cannot survive this.

Like moths to a flame, humans will always plunge head-first into the ugly truth's searing heat, even though we know we'll get vaporized. It's the same compulsion that made us open our SAT scores or watch the last two "Star Wars" movies -- we simply cannot be saved from ourselves.

Fortunately, for now, the Handy Truster doesn't work, at least not well enough to drive us insane. You can't test it with "planned lies," and poor input quality can taint results -- caveats any husband with strange lipstick on his collar will gladly cling to.

But like all doomsday devices, the Handy Truster will eventually perfect itself, and then turn on its masters. Left unchecked, it will destroy society, one relationship at a time, until we all end up alone, crouched in dark corners, tearfully pleading -- to ourselves and the device -- "I love myself! I love myself!" only to have the device coldly blink back, "worm! worm! worm!"

At that point, odds are we'll welcome an asteroid to put us out of our misery.

Copyright 2003, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

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