PLEASE NOTE:


*

CCNet 66/2003 - 4 September 2003
--------------------------------


Not a single of Britain's national papers or media outlets
(with the sole exception of 7 lines in today's Daily Telegraph) has
been prepared to withdraw or put right the often melodramatic
impact scare reports published over the last two days. The same
bleak picture of silence and disregard for recent developments
is characteristic of most of the international media. Neither have
major international press agencies such as Reuters, AP or UPI
retracted or updated their asteroid alarm wires which produced
"doom-soon" headlines around the globe. This lack of journalistic
prudence and accountability is shocking and reprehensible; but it is
certainly not due to a lack of information.
  --Benny Peiser, 4 September 2003



(1) MUM'S THE WORD AS THE WORLD'S MEDIA FAIL TO RETRACT HYPED ASTEROID ALARM

(2) "ASTEROID COULD WIPE OUT CONTINENT"

(3) ASTEROID 2003 QQ47'S POTENTIAL EARTH IMPACT IN 2014 RULED OUT

(4) ASTEROID ALERT IS ANOTHER FALSE ALARM

(5) FORGET LATEST ASTEROID THREAT - SCIENTISTS

(6) HOW 2003 QQ47 SHOULD HAVE BEEN REPORTED: "ARMAGEDDON COMING?

(7) WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT CRYING IMPACT?

(8) ASTEROID 2003 QQ47 REPORT

(9) UNWARRANTED, BUT NOT A "FALSE ALARM"

(10) POINTLESS ASTEROID SCARE


==============
(1) MUM'S THE WORD AS THE WORLD'S MEDIA FAIL TO RETRACT HYPED ASTEROID ALARM

Benny Peiser <b.j.peiser@livjm.ac.uk>

"ASTEROID COULD WIPE OUT CONTINENT", screams the headline in
today's AUSTALIAN newspaper, while UPI yesterday posted another
outdated wire ("ASTEROID COULD HIT EARTH IN 2014") more than a
day after the all-clear was sounded regarding 2003 QQ47.

Even more deplorable than the obsolete and overblown reporting in
most of the world's news media is their almost complete
failure to retract and correct the latest asteroid scare!

Not a single of Britain's national papers or media outlets
(with the sole exception of 7 lines in today's Daily Telegraph) has
been prepared to withdraw or put right the often melodramatic
impact scare reports published over the last two days. The same
bleak picture of silence and disregard for recent developments
is characteristic of most of the international media. Neither have
major international press agencies such as Reuters, AP or UPI
retracted or updated their asteroid alarm wires which produced
"doom-soon" headlines around the globe.

This lack of journalistic prudence and accountability is shocking and
reprehensible; but it is certainly not due to a lack of information.
After all, newspaper and media editors have been inundated with news
about the elimination of any impact risk for 2014, not least from
news agencies such as AFP and the PA!

It is still to early to tell what lies behind this out-and-out
speechlessness. Perhaps it's the old grievance that scares sell
papers while accurate and reassuring information is unexiting
and thus no money makers.

More likely, many science correspondents and news editors will be
to embarrassed to put their readers in the picture, having to tell
them that they - once again - fell for a "false alarm", thus scaring
their readers needlessly.

In yesterday's Space.com article, Rob Britt noticed a change in
attitude among some reporters who have begun to take the mickey:
"There is increasing sarcasm in the media with each new asteroid alert.
Some reporters and editors are getting wise to the long odds -- or
perhaps tired of having to report on them -- and doing more than just
sensationalizing the data." If today's striking non-reporting is
anything to go by, the NEO community may soon be faced with an even
worse prospect: mockerey and disregard. Let's make sure that it won't
come to that!

Benny Peiser

===========
(2) "ASTEROID COULD WIPE OUT CONTINENT"

AUSTRALIAN 4th September 2003
 
AN asteroid large enough to wipe out a continent could collide with Earth
in 11 years' time, astronomers said yesterday. But there is no reason to
prepare for Armageddon just yet.

The chances of an impact are remote -- one in 909,000 -- and the odds of
oblivion are expected to lengthen further as more details of the object's
orbit become known...

=============
(3) ASTEROID 2003 QQ47'S POTENTIAL EARTH IMPACT IN 2014 RULED OUT

Ron Baalke - Near Earth Object Program <info@jpl.nasa.gov>

http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov

Asteroid 2003 QQ47's Potential Earth Impact in 2014 Ruled Out

Paul W. Chodas and Steven R. Chesley
NASA's Near Earth Object Program Office
September 3, 2003

Newly discovered asteroid 2003 QQ47 has received considerable media
attention over the last few days because it had a small chance of
colliding with the Earth in the year 2014 and was rated a "1" on
the Torino impact hazard scale, which goes from 0 to 10. The odds
of collision in 2014, as estimated by JPL's Sentry impact
monitoring system, peaked at 1 chance in 250,000, a result which
was posted on our Impact Risk Page (http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/risko) o
n Saturday, August 30. Impact events at the Torino Scale 1 level
certainly merit careful monitoring by astronomers, but these events
do not warrant public concern. In fact, each year several
newly discovered asteroids reach Torino Scale 1 for a brief period
after discovery; 2003 QQ47 is the fourth such case this year.

As astronomers continue to monitor an asteroid and measure its
position, more precise predictions can be made. On September 2,
new measurements of QQ47's position allowed us to narrow our
prediction of its path in 2014, and thus we could rule out any
Earth impact possibilities for 2014. In our Impact Risk Page for
2003 QQ47, the entry for the year 2014 has now disappeared,
although a number of potential impact events remain for later
years.  We expect that these too will be ruled out in the coming
days as astronomers continue to track the object and we refine
our orbit predictions.

These seemingly large day-to-day changes in impact predictions for
newly discovered asteroids are just what we expect. In the few days
after an asteroid is first discovered, its orbit is known only very
approximately. The range of possible positions in future years is
wide and can easily encompass the Earth, but as the object continues
to be tracked, the range of possibilities shrinks quickly, allowing
us to rule out any possibility of impact. This process is ongoing
for 2003 QQ47, and could take days or even weeks before all potential
impacts are ruled out.

=============
(4) ASTEROID ALERT IS ANOTHER FALSE ALARM

Press Association, 3 September 2003
http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_815980.html

Fears that a mile-wide asteroid could be due to hit the Earth
in 2014 have turned out to be a false alarm.

Scientists initially calculated that there was a 1 in 909,000
chance of a collision on March 21.

Such an impact would have an explosive force eight million times
more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at
the end of the Second World War.

But new observations collected on Monday night have now "eliminated"
the risk, say experts at the American space agency Nasa.

A spokesman at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California,
 said there was still a 1 in 2.2 million chance of an impact sometime in
the next century.

Story filed: 18:47 Wednesday 3rd September 2003

Copyright 2003, PA

=============
(5) FORGET LATEST ASTEROID THREAT - SCIENTISTS

Press Association News, 3 September 2003

Fears that a mile-wide asteroid could be due to hit the Earth in 2014
have turned out to be a false alarm, it was disclosed today.

Scientists initially calculated that there was a 1 in 909,000 chance
of a collision on March 21.

Such an impact would have an explosive force eight million times more
powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of
the Second World War.

But new observations collected on Monday night have now "eliminated" the
risk, say experts at the American space agency Nasa.

A spokesman at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California,
said there was still a 1 in 2.2 million chance of an impact sometime in
the next century.

But this was far below the "background risk" of a catastrophic collision
in any given year.

Paul Chodas, a research scientist at JPL who specialises in calculating
the orbits of near-Earth objects, told the MSNBC News website: "We have
many asteroids that have residual risks. This particular one was of interest
because it is fairly large, 1.3 kilometres, and the predicted impact was only
10 years away. Combining these two factors, we raised it to some level of concern."

The giant space rock, codenamed 2003 QQ47, was first observed on August 24
by scientists at the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research Programme (Linear)
based in Socorro, New Mexico, USA.

It was given a rare rating of one on the Torino scale which measures the
threat from asteroid and comet impacts.

As a result it was classified as "an event meriting careful monitoring".

But both Nasa and an asteroid-watching group in Italy have now reduced the
2,600 million ton rock's Torino rating to zero.

"We expect the impact possibilities to go to zero, that is the usual scenario,"
said Chodas.

The news was confirmed today by Britain's NEO (Near Earth Objects) Information
Centre in Leicester.

Kevin Yates, the centre's project manager, defended the decision to make such
asteroid data public.

He said: "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.

"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."

Another much smaller asteroid still has a Torino 1 impact risk rating.

Scientists have calculated a 1 in 10,000 probability of two potential impacts
for asteroid 1997 XR2 in June 2101.

Estimates suggest that if it hit the asteroid would release a thousandth of the
energy of 2003 QQ47.

Copyright 2003, PA News
 
==============
(6) HOW 2003 QQ47 SHOULD HAVE BEEN REPORTED: "ARMAGEDDON COMING?

The Independent (Bangladesh), 4 September 2003
http://independent-bangladesh.com/news/sep/04/04092003ed.htm#A3

A giant asteroid named 2003 QQ47 is heading towards Earth and may collide with it on March 21, 2014, warned astronomers as reported by Reuters and published in yesterday's The Independent.

But any alarm will be uncalled-for because the same news-item also says that the probability ratio of such a thing actually happening is nearly one in a million. Another reason why the warning may not be taken seriously is that scientific bodies like NASA have cried wolf before also, perhaps to avoid budget cuts and to prove that space research is more directly related to human safety and welfare. Five-and-half years ago an astronomer in the Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory created a brief scare by announcing that a newly discovered asteroid, 1997XF11 might collide with Earth in 2028. But later calculations proved that the asteroid would not come closer than 600,000 miles to Earth's orbit.

Though few will take the alarm seriously, the fact is that an astral collision of Earth is quite within the bounds of possibility. Although Armageddon may be a cinematographic fantasy but large planetoids have hit several times in the planets 4.5 billion-year history. One immediately recalls the 1908 explosion above the Tunguska region of Siberia, Russia which flattened trees on a 400 square mile area and destroyed wild life. Fortunately there was no loss of life as the extra-terrestrial body had exploded a few miles above Earth. The Grand Canyon in Arizona is said to be the result of impact of an asteroid that crashed over the place 50,000 years ago. The hypothesis about the sudden extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago is only too familiar. Though in theory the possibility of collision exists, astronomers think that it can actually happen only once in 300,000 years.

There are a few thousand asteroids in the region between Mars and Jupiter, about 200 of which have a diameter of more than 60 miles and the largest named Ceres is 623 miles across. Today man does possess the means to render an enemy asteroid harmless. It may be blown up by nuclear warhead or a rocket engine attached to the asteroid can drive it off-course. Of course, there is no one hundred per cent guarantee that either strategy will work.

===========
(7) WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT CRYING IMPACT?

Alan Boyle,s Cosmic Log, 3 September 2003 / 5:30 p.m. ET
http://www.msnbc.com/news/750150.asp?0si=-
      
The top asteroid threats: Now that the threat assessment for the asteroid known as 2003 QQ47 has been reduced to zero, scientists can go on to the next stage in the process: agonizing over how much should be revealed about asteroid alerts, seasoned with a bit of finger-pointing at news media.
      
Meanwhile, one asteroid on NASA's list of potential future impact risks continues to have a Torino rating of 1, which means it merits careful monitoring in the years ahead. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory estimates that there's a 1-in-10,000 chance that asteroid 1997 XR2 will hit Earth on June 1, 2101.
      
So should we be worried? JPL orbit researcher Paul Chodas says no.
      
"That one we've only observed for 27 days back in 1977," he said. "We need to wait for it to come around again. We would expect as soon as we do that, we'll get a precise orbit, and the chance of an impact will be eliminated."
      
The case of 1997 XR2 illustrates once again that asteroid alerts arise primarily because astronomers need more information about a near-Earth object's orbit, rather than because Earth is right in the crosshairs. In every case so far, getting more data leads to eliminating the perceived threat.
      
It could be that way as well with the longest-term asteroid threat known so far, a big space rock called 1950 DA. A study in the journal Science last year said there was a roughly 1-in-300 chance of a collision on March 16, 2880. But we have a few centuries to revise that estimate, and even if we're extremely unlucky, there will also be more time to come up with an anti-asteroid system able to cope with "Armageddon."
      
Would you want to be told about even the tiniest chance of an asteroid collision, even if it could later be seen as a case of crying wolf? Even if nothing could be done about it? We've considered this subject before, but as always, feel free to let me know what you think.

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

(8) ASTEROID 2003 QQ47 REPORT

Kevin Yates <keviny@spacecentre.co.uk>

Dear Benny,

In light of the discussion on CCNet on the NEO Information Centre's
news article about asteroid 2003 QQ47, we wished to make our position clear.
In the past, information on asteroids such as 2003 QQ47 has been
picked up off the web by uninformed journalists and presented as an
almost certain collision. Providing accurate, level-headed information
on NEOs potentially interesting to the media is part of the NEOIC's
mandate whether these pose a significant hazard or not.

In this instance by taking the lead, we were able to ensure that the
emphasis was placed on the very small probability of an impact, and to
highlight the likelihood of the risk assessment decreasing as more
observations were made.

Whilst some headlines, by their very nature, have been a little
sensationalist the text of the articles themselves was generally very
balanced and gave the clear message not to worry. It is unfortunate that
none of us have any control over the title of articles wherever they
might be published and that they are so often misleading. We entirely
agree with your view, expressed to Space.com around the time of the NT7
story, when you said, "I always request that the information I provide to
reporters should be fairly balanced, so that the potentially frightening
information is balanced against the much more reassuring information."

As for the tongue-in-cheek headlines, you were quite correct when you
said of the British press's approach back in July 2002, "...the British
press just love these stories, but is almost never 'doom-and-gloom,'
rather 'let's have a good time as long as it lasts!' It's a very dry, yet
healthy sense of humour that can see the funny side even of the most
serious problems we face as humans." 

From a public communication point of view, this provided an excellent
opportunity to address the popular misconception that a change in risk
assessment means astronomers got it wrong the first time around. In
virtually all the interviews conducted by NEOIC representatives, we
highlighted the way risk assessment evolves as more observations are
made.

There is also a commonly held belief among the public that if a
dangerous asteroid were detected, they would not be told. By inviting
the public to look at the process of risk assessment, and to see the
drop from Torino 1 to zero, it should now be clear to many more people
that such a cover up would not be possible. We hope this coverage also
served to reassure the public that these objects are being detected and
that dedicated astronomers are working hard to assess the level of
potential threat to Earth.

The NEOIC would be in favour of providing easy to understand, but
accurate, information on all NEOs with a Torino scale rating greater than
zero. If they "merit careful monitoring" they automatically become of
interest to the media and the public, and it is important that accurate
information is available in an easy to understand format.

Regards,

Kevin Yates (FRAS)
Space Communication Manager
National Space Centre
Exploration Drive
Leicester LE4 5NS

=============
(9) UNWARRANTED, BUT NOT A "FALSE ALARM"

Dave Tholen <tholen@IfA.Hawaii.Edu>

Benny,

I object to your use of the description "false asteroid alarm", which
once again suggests that the onus belongs on astronomers. There was
nothing false about the data or its interpretation. Once again, the
alarm was unnecessary because the object was still observable, and as
will be the case for an object with a 1 in a million chance of hitting,
additional observations have a million to 1 chance of eliminating that
possibility, and that's exactly what happened AGAIN. The publicity
was unwarranted, and if there is an onus to place on someone, give it
to whomever went to the press with this one.
--Dave Tholen

============
(10) POINTLESS ASTEROID SCARE

David Morrisoin <dmorrison@arc.nasa.gov>

NEO News (09/03/03) Pointless Asteroid Scare

Dear Friends and Students of NEOs:

As I am sure you have all heard, the British NEO Information Centre
has created another media flap over an asteroid, 2003 QQ47, that
poses no danger of hitting the Earth.  On August 24, the LINEAR
search system in the Spaceguard Survey discovered 2003 QQ47. As is
the case with many newly discovered NEAs, the initial orbit was
highly uncertain and included several low-probability cases of
possible future impacts. The orbit information was posted on the
Internet by the JPL Sentry and Pisa NEODys systems. At one point,
with only 6 days of observations reported, the formal odds of an
impact in 2014 briefly rose slightly above one-in-a-million, and then
went virtually to zero as more data were reported. This is standard
operating procedure for dealing with newly discovered NEAs.

Unfortunately, the UK NEO Information Centre decided that this
asteroid deserved special attention, and on September 2 they issued a
press release calling attention to the danger of collision in 2014.
Since the NEO Information Center is supported by the UK government,
this quasi-official "prediction" was widely reported in the British
press. While most stories correctly noted the very small odds of
hitting, they still treated this as a serious warning of a threat to
Earth. The story was also reported in Europe, the USA, and Australia,
but more moderately than in the UK.

The result is another round of criticisms of astronomers, triggered
by the NEO Information Centre release (which they withdrew on
September 3). This is not the first time, of course. For your
information, two background discussions follow: A story by Robert
Britt from Space.com that deals with the media reactions to 2003
QQ47, and a section from a scientific paper in press that describes
five previous cases where the supposed danger of impact was widely
reported in the press.

David Morrison

=================================
ASTEROID DOOMSDAY 'RISK' EVAPORATES AFTER MEDIA FANS FLAMES

Space.com, 3 September 2003
by Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
posted: 09:45 am ET
03 September 2003

--snip--
[post yesterday on CCNet, BP]
see: http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/asteroid_norisk_030903.html
--snip--

=======================================
Excerpt from a chapter in a forthcoming book on asteroid impact mitigation

IMPACTS AND THE PUBLIC: COMMUNICATING THE NATURE OF THE IMPACT HAZARD

David Morrison
Clark R. Chapman
Duncan Steel
Richard P. Binzel

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE: FIVE NEAS THAT MADE THE EVENING NEWS

Much of the press coverage of the NEO impact hazard has been
excellent. Some journalists have worked hard to master the
intricacies of this low-probability risk and to translate the
information into a form that is accessible to a wider public.
However, reporting of individual cases has revealed problems in the
communications between astronomers and the non-specialist media.

In this section we briefly review five cases in the past decade where
newly discovered NEAs were widely reported (or misreported) in the
press as posing a risk of impact with the Earth. Each case involves
communications failures of a different kind. These examples
illustrate the frustrating breadth of ways that things can 'go wrong'.

What constitutes an asteroid being newsworthy, and hence capable of
spawning a scare, has changed gradually over the past decade. The
selection criteria are such things as the probability and proximity
in time of the potential impact. As new records have been set for
each parameter, the media apply new standards to rumors and reports
of potentially hazardous NEAs. Perhaps astronomers as well learn how
to communicate better. Despite this, with the anticipated increasing
sky coverage and deeper surveys, it seems inevitable that impact
alarms will continue to make frequent appearances in the media.


(1) 1997 XF11
The first modern impact scare was associated with asteroid 1997 XF11
(now asteroid # 35396), an approximately 1-km diameter NEA discovered
on December 6, 1997. By early in 1998, preliminary orbital
calculations showed a possible close pass by Earth in October 2028.
Brian Marsden, Director of the Minor Planet Center at the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was following the orbit
in early March when the most recent observations suggested that XF11
might pass well inside the orbit of the Moon. On March 11 he made
this information available and quickly distributed a Press
Information Sheet in which he stated that "the chance of an actual
collision is small, but it is not entirely out of the question. From
the calculated miss distance and its estimated error, Marsden and
other astronomers suggested that the probability of an impact could
be as high as one-in-a-thousand, and news media all over the world
put the story on the front page.

Unlike Marsden, Don Yeomans and Paul Chodas at JPL had the software
to estimate the actual odds of hitting, and within two hours of
Marsden's announcement they had calculated that an impact was
impossible -- although the position of the asteroid in is orbit had a
substantial uncertainty, there was zero possibility of a collision.
(The error ellipse was effectively a line that passed well off the
Earth, rather than a fat ellipse). Marsden did not withdraw his
comments, however, until prediscovery observations from 1990 were
found a day later that improved the orbit and demonstrated than the
asteroid would not only miss, it would not even come close to the
Earth in 2028. Only then did the media run retraction stories, mostly
along the lines that new data had corrected the original prediction.

The XF11 episode demonstrated the need for rapid calculation of
impact odds as well as nominal asteroid orbits and miss distances. In
addition to the JPL team, Andrea Milani at Pisa and Karri Muinonen in
Helsinki quickly demonstrated this capability. The second lesson was
that astronomers should check their results with colleagues before
'going public' if they wished to avoid the embarrassment of a
scientific debate in the public eye. Third was a more general concern
that astronomers looked rather foolish when a prediction of a
possible impact was corrected or withdrawn within less than a day. It
was suggested that perhaps the IAU should vet such predictions, and
in this case the IAU issued a statement that "contrary to preliminary
reports, there is no danger of its colliding with the Earth in 2028.
Like all Earth-crossing asteroids, XF11 may someday hit our planet,
but this seems to be an event for the distant future, and at present
we are more at risk from some unknown asteroid colliding with the
Earth than from XF11 or any other object already discovered."

In summary, the problem with XF11 was premature announcement without
calculating a formal impact probability or consulting with
colleagues. The solution seemed to be better software and more
consultation before making announcements.

(2) 1999 AN10
On January 13, 1999, the LINEAR search program discovered a mile-wide
NEA designated 1999 AN10. Milani and his colleagues at Pisa showed
that there was a less than one-in-a-million chance of AN10 passing
through a keyhole (see below) during a 2027 close approach so that it
would impact the Earth several decades later. In the year since XF11,
great strides had been made in orbit prediction, including the
concept of 'keyholes' defining a very restricted set of orbits at one
pass that could lead to a resonant return at a subsequent pass.
Although the result was unremarkable from the perspective of the
impact probability, it was of interest to many dynamicists, and
Milani prepared a manuscript and asked colleagues for an informal
review within two weeks. Receiving no complaints, he posted his paper
with no fanfare on his website.

Benny Peiser of John Moores University, the moderator of the CCNet
Digest Internet forum, discovered the unheralded paper on Milani's
website and charged cover-up. The widely-reported media story was not
about the impact risk, but about the idea that astronomers would
conspire to withhold from the public information on a possible (even
though exceedingly unlikely) impact for weeks. As a result, Milani
challenged his colleagues and the IAU to come up with a better way to
review and (if appropriate) to publicize such cases. Shortly
thereafter the IAU Working Group on NEOs set up its technical review
committee, committed to carrying out a review within 72 hours. The
Torino scale was also adopted in June 1999 to aid in public
understanding as described above.

In summary, the problem with AN10 was that the media could read
scientific websites and extract information on low-probability future
impacts. As a result, the scientists lost control of the discussion
and were subject to potential criticism for being either too open or
for suppressing information, according to the taste of the critic.
The solution seemed to be to formalize the review and let the IAU,
through its technical review, provide an international, professional
context for any released information.

(3) 2000 SG344
The IAU review process was soon exercised for the very small object
2000 SG344, which was interesting primarily because of the
possibility that it may be a spent rocket upper stage in an orbit
very similar to that of the Earth. For a few days, however, it
appeared that SG344 might have an impact probability as high as 1 in
500, triggering the IAU 72-hour technical review. The review was
completed on a Friday afternoon, confirming the relatively high
impact probability, and accordingly JPL issued a press statement and
the IAU posted the results on their webpage. Media interest was
immediate, as this was the highest impact probability ever predicted
and confirmed.

Within a few hours, new observations were available that showed no
impact was possible. Unfortunately, on the weekend no-one was
correcting the statements of alarm posted by JPL and the IAU. Two
mistakes thus compounded the problem: a statement was issued that was
technically correct but did not anticipate the availability of new
data, and no-one was ready to issue a formal correction over the
weekend. Once again the astronomers looked foolish.

In summary, the problem with SG344 was a literal application of the
IAU guidelines, which called for release of information as soon as
the technical review was complete, without recognizing that the data
upon which the orbital calculations had been based were improving
daily. The solution was, as a minimum, to relax the strict IAU
guidelines. It was also suggested by some that no information should
be released until all possible data were collected, even if this
meant a delay of weeks or possibly months, since in nearly all cases
the refinement of the orbit would eliminate the possibility of an
impact.

(4) 2002 MN
Asteroid 2002 MN was a small asteroid that flew past the Earth at a
distance of 0.0008 AU (one-third of the lunar distance) three days
prior to its discovery. The media judged this to be a failure on the
part of astronomers because there was no prior warning, whereas
actually it was a success: the asteroid was found and catalogued.
Orbit calculation showed that it did not pose any danger of future
impact (for the 50-100 year window that was used to search for future
close passages).

In summary, the problem with 2002 MN was that it was discovered, as
often happens, after closest approach rather than before. The
community had difficulty explaining that the Spaceguard Survey was
not designed to detect NEAs on their final plunge to Earth, and that
finding an object after closest approach is just as useful as finding
it before, and is in fact nearly as likely, since many asteroids move
into the night sky from the sunward side of the Earth.

(5) 2002 NT7
Asteroid 2002 NT7, with the relatively large diameter of 2 km, was
discovered in July 2002. By this time the calculation of impact
probabilities was fully automated, and on July 18, NT7 was posted on
the 'risk page' of both the Pisa NEODys and JPL Sentry systems,
showing a possible but very unlikely (of order one in 100,000) impact
just 17 years in the future. Because new data were coming in and NT7
remained a zero on the Torino Scale (although very close to Torino
Scale = 1), it was decided not to call for a formal IAU technical
review or to make any public statements, pending improvements in the
orbit.

On July 24 this remote chance of impact became an international media
story when the BBC picked the information up from the Internet and
reported that the asteroid was "on a collision course with Earth". As
expected, however, additional observations quickly eliminated the
possibility of an impact. The 'all clear' for any impact in 2019 was
released on July 26, and by August 1 continuing orbital improvements
also eliminated a lower-probability impact in 2060 -- a progression
of events that reflects the normal working of the Spaceguard system.
So why all the media fuss about NT7, especially in the UK press?
This is unclear. Especially provocative was the BBC story that called
NT7 "the most threatening object yet detected in space." As the
asteroid itself receded from interest, the media story focused on the
sensationalist reporting.

Science journalist Robert Britt concluded in a story in Space.com
that "The whole affair, over an asteroid that is almost certainly
harmless, illustrates the stylistic ocean that separates American and
British media and scientists' tactics in dealing with them". The
following quotes are from his report. Duncan Steel suggested that
asteroid stories have become so common that in his country they
either make headlines or they're not used at all. Unless a reporter
"makes it sensational, the editor will nix it. Ditto (especially) for
the printed media." Don Yeomans said that he was unprepared when "the
media blitz struck." "Most of the six interviews I did with BBC
reporters Tuesday night began with their assumption that there would
be a collision," Yeomans said "One is then forced to back up and try
to explain the real situation and the fact that there is not really a
story here. They didn't wish to hear that." Yeomans later concluded
that journalists and scientists both need to strengthen efforts to
help the public understand how asteroid risks are determined. "There
is plenty of blame to go around," he said.

In summary, NT7 became a media story in spite of the astronomers. The
press obtained information directly from technical webpages and gave
it a sensationalist spin. Astronomers then spent several days trying
to correct the misimpressions. While there is no clear solution, most
of us concluded that scientists should have responsible statements
ready to provide to the press or post on websites as an antidote to
this sort of outbreak. But no one suggested that we should try to
keep impact predictions secret. That is a clear lesson from all of
the encounters with the press from XF11 to NT7.
--
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
NEO News is an informal compilation of news and opinion dealing with
Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and their impacts. These opinions are the
responsibility of the individual authors and do not represent the
positions of NASA, the International Astronomical Union, or any other
organization. To subscribe (or unsubscribe) contact
dmorrison@arc.nasa.gov. For additional information, please see the
website http://impact.arc.nasa.gov. If anyone wishes to copy or
redistribute original material from these notes, fully or in part,
please include this disclaimer.

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