CCNet DIGEST 16 July 1998

    Spaceguard Canada <UNIVERSE@UVVM.UVic.CA>

    Jens Kieffer-Olsen <>

    Geotimes, May 1998


From Spaceguard Canada <UNIVERSE@UVVM.UVic.CA>

The Near-Earth Asteroid programme of the University of Victoria, known
as Spaceguard Canada, conducted with the Plaskett telescope of the
Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, recognizes only the Minor Planet
Center (Director Dr Brian Marsden) of the International Astronomical
Union, as the organization responsible for receiving, processing,
disseminating, archiving and cataloguing astrometric, ephemeris and
orbital data on minor planets and comets, including near-Earth objects.

                              Jeremy B. Tatum
                              David D. Balam


From Jens Kieffer-Olsen <>


>        NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office will focus on the
> goal of locating at least 90 percent of the estimated 2,000
> asteroids and comets that approach the Earth and are larger than
> about 2/3-mile (about 1 kilometer) in diameter, by the end of the
> next decade.

The above news is an encouraging piece of information. Only it fails to
outline plans for detecting the last 10% of asteroids (?) larger than 1
km, plus 90% of those larger than 200m. 

There is no reason to rest on the laurels once the primary goal has
been achieved. On the contrary the mapping of the smaller objects is
likely to pay off much sooner, and intercepting an object of a
manageable size is an excellent exercise before eventually tackling an
object large enough not to leave us any margin of error.

Jens Kieffer-Olsen, M.Sc.(Elec.Eng.)   


From Geotimes, May 1998
(Journal of the American Geological Institute, AGI)

Why we Need Open Discourse and Data Access

Two disparate events in recent months - the possibility of an asteroid
colliding with Earth and apparent evidence of a Russian nuclear test -
illustrate the value of open communication and the need for the
broadest possible access to scientific data. In each case, preliminary
data filled the air, with politicians and the media jumping to
conclusions. But in both cases, scientists were able to resolve the
issues through open discourse and publicly available data.


On March 11, Washington’s daily scandal mill gave way to news that a
mile-wide asteroid would pass between Earth and the moon in 2028, and
that an actual impact could not be ruled out. Astronomers who had been
tracking the asteroid (designated 1997 XF11) since December felt that
they had constrained its orbit well enough to communicate the results
to other astronomers by issuing a statement from the International
Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. The
statement was further disseminated by the American Astronomical Society
over the Internet, where the media got wind of it.

They say in Hollywood there is no such thing as bad publicity. Surely
the producers of this summer’s hoped-for blockbuster movie Armageddon
could not have been more pleased to have their plot line displayed as
front-page headlines. Politicians also heard opportunity knocking,
especially proponents of space-based missile defense systems (known as
“Star Wars” program). House Space Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrbacher
(R.-Calif.) immediately put out a press release chastising President
Clinton for his recent line-item veto of a missile defense project -
now clearly, in Rohrbacher’s view, a short-sighted decision.

The round-the clock media frenzy caught the astronomers by surprise -
after all, the statement indicated a .001 probability of a collision
(sic) - but the original aim of getting additional data from the rest
of their community was successful. Other astronomers dug through
archives, and researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
identified XF11 on photographs taken at the Palomar observatory in
1990. With the longer tracking period, revised calculations indicated
that the asteroid would miss Earth by 600,000 miles, a distance 20
times greater than originally predicted.

In the wake of the second announcement, one newspaper printed a quote
by Mark Twain: There is something fascinating about science. One gets
wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of
fact.” Certainly, Mr Clemens’ quote could run as a caption beneath the
full-color artists’ conceptions of asteroid hitting Earth that
accompanied some newspaper stories. But I consider it more fascinating
that the XF11 crisis came and went so quickly as a result of open
data-sharing within the astronomical community.


Somewhat closer to home, the State Department summoned Russia's
ambassador last August to formally complain that the United States
had evidence of an apparent nuclear test conducted only days earlier at
Russia's Novaya Zemlya test site, located on an island in the Arctic
Ocean. Such a test would violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
(CTBT), signed by both Russia and the United States in September 1996,
as well as Russia's own self-imposed moratorium. This diplomatic crisis
resulted from a highly classified alert issued by the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA). A seismograph, part of the network being put
in place to monitor the CTBT, had detected a seismic event in the
vicinity of Novaya Zemlya at roughly the same time that satellite
photographs showed apparent testing activity at the site. Although the
Russians admitted to conducting tests on weapons components, they
adamantly denied conducting a nuclear test and argued that the seismic
signal was from an offshore earthquake.

Officially, this stalemate continued until November, when the United
States dropped its claim in the wake of a classified Air Force report
and the findings of a panel of experts convened by the CIA. In the
intervening months, Congress and the press had focused substantial
attention on groups opposed to the test ban, who pointed to the Novaya
Zemlya incident as proof that the CTBT could not be verified and,
therefore, should not be ratified (the Senate has yet to act on the
treaty). But long before the United States reversed its position,
seismologists had clear evidence that the event had been produced by an
earthquake, not a bomb.

When news of this incident leaked in late August, university
seismologists quickly recognized the event as a magnitude 3.3 sea-floor
earthquake, using nonclassified data accessible over the Internet from
nearby seismic stations in Finland, Norway, and Russia. Because these
stations were not part of their monitoring network, the CIA analysis
did not include their data, despite the fact that all the stations used
similar equipment. In a LOS ANGELES TIMES editorial in September,
seismologist Jeffrey Park of Yale University wrote that this incident
"demonstrates the importance of maintaining a global network of open
seismic observatories so that future suspect seismic events can be
characterized as rapidly as this one has been, without revealing
classified data sources."

This single incident may not prove that the CTBT is verifiable, but it
certainly suggests that verification will work best when all available
data are used. As new seismic stations are put in place to support CTBT
verification, the United States and other nations should configure them
such that as much data as possible is made as widely accessible as
possible. Doing so will not only shed light on suspect seismic events
but will also maximize advances in earthquake mitigation and
fundamental research into the nature of earthquakes and Earth itself.


In both of these cases, open communication among scientists, combined
with publicly accessible data, were the keys to resolving the issues.
The astronomers' ability to compare results and incorporate many
sources of data quickly produced a revised estimate of asteroid XF11's
orbit, indicating that - for now at least - the only Earth-asteroid
collisions will be the ones coming to a theater near you. In the
nuclear test case, the use of all available data could have averted a
tense diplomatic crisis, demonstrating the value of open data sharing
for monitoring the test ban treaty.

The asteroid example also illustrates that we are in an information age
where open communication within the scientific community can quickly
turn into a broader discourse with the public, moderated by the media.
Anticipating that dialogue and learning to cope with it provides both
an opportunity and a challenge that we as scientists must address.

David Applegate
AGI Director of Government Affairs

Copyright 1998, Geotimes

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