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SPACEGUARD UK OPENS OBSERVATORY

>From the BBC News Online, 28 September 2001
http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/newsid_1568000/1568946.stm

By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble

Spaceguard UK, the organisation which has spent years lobbying the
government to take the threat of asteroid impacts on Earth more
seriously, opens its Spaceguard Centre in Knighton, Powys, on Saturday.

The organisation's founder, Jonathan Tate, wants the Welsh facility to
become the National Near-Earth Object Information Centre, a body which
the government is creating after publishing a report in 2000 on asteroid
impact risks.

"At the moment, the main thrust of what we're doing is public
information," he told BBC News Online.

"We want to raise public awareness of the threat of asteroid and comet
impacts, and the ways in which we can predict and prevent them."

Sensor array

The centre is housed in what used to be Powys County Observatory, and
contains a range of telescopes, satellite data receivers, weather
sensors and a seismograph.

Spaceguard UK wants it to be a tourist attraction for visitors to the
area, as well as a permanent base for the organisation, which functions
as an information exchange for specialists in near-Earth objects around
the world.

Mr Tate said that he was encouraged by new data from the Nasa probe
which landed on the Eros asteroid earlier in the year. The data was, he
said, consistent with Eros being a monolithic solid body.

"That's a good thing because if we ever did have to move something like
Eros, we'd be in much less danger of turning a cannonball into a cluster
bomb," he said.

Incremental nudges

Mr Tate said that technology existed in theory to deflect an asteroid on
course for Earth.

"You don't have to push it out of the way with one Titanic bang - you
can do it incrementally.

"We have the explosive device: the Americans and Russians have buckets
of them. We have the delivery system: the Near-Shoemaker probe landed on
Eros.

"We have the components of an effective system but not all in the same
place," he added.

Long-range forecast

A good surveillance system would give years or even decades warning of
an impending possible collision, and allow politicians time to assess
the risk and decide what to do, he said.

"We're not looking at the 'fingers on the button' sort of readiness.
We're looking at having 30, 40 years of notice.

"If we had a decent surveillance system, we could do that," he said.

"But even with such systems in place in the future, near-Earth object
specialists would still be providing risk assessments rather than
definite collision predictions.

"We'll never be able to say it will definitely hit until probably the
last month or two. It will then be a political decision to decide what
level of probability of impact requires action.

Decreasing scepticism

"We would continue to do what we already do - to provide advice," Mr
Tate said. Spaceguard UK believes that scepticism about asteroid impact
research is on the wane.

"Over the past decade or so, it has become apparent that asteroidal and
cometary impacts have played a dramatic, possibly leading role in the
development of this planet, and the evolution of life," it says on its
website.

"Natural science is in the throes of a revolution in thinking, akin to
that which occurred after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the
Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

"With this understanding comes the realisation that there is no reason
to believe that this extraterrestrial influence is at an end, and the
possibility that a major impact could severely disrupt, or even destroy,
our current way of life on a global scale is one to be considered
seriously," it says.

Copyright 2001, BBC
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CCCMENU CCC for 2001

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