PLEASE NOTE:


*

CCNet SPECIAL - 2000 SG344: MORE RETRACTIONS - MORE REACTIONS
-------------------------------------------------------------

6 November 2000


"Unless we understand and accept that crucial mistakes were made in
the course of these events, I fear that we will be confronted with
similar aggravation and embarrassment sooner rather than later."
        --- Benny J Peiser, report on the BF19 asteroid scare to the IAU
WGNEO, 24 March 2000



(1) IAU RETRACTION OF LATEST ASTEROID SCARE
    http://www.iau.org/sg344.html

(2) ASTEROID THREATENS MAJOR IMPACT WITH EARTH
    The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November 2000, 11:05 AM

(3) SEPT 21, 2030: 500/1 IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD
    The Mirror, 6 September 2000

(4) THE ASTEROID SCARE THAT DOESN'T GO AWAY
    Rob McNaught <rmn@aaocbn.aao.gov.au>

(5) Re: NEW PRECOVERY DATA REVEALS NO IMPACT THREAT IN 2030
    David Tholen <tholen@IfA.Hawaii.Edu>

(6) WHAT'S WRONG WITH MAKING PUBLIC IMPACT ANNOUNCEMENTS AND THEN RETRACTING
THEM?
    Oliver Morton <abq72@pop.dial.pipex.com>

(7) 2000 SG344: PART OF AN OLD SPACE PROBE?
    Mark Kidger <mrk@ll.iac.es>

(8) WHAT DOES NEW ORBITAL DATA TELL US ABOUT NATURE OF 2000 SG344?
    James Oberg <JamesOberg@aol.com>

(9) "THE SYSTEM IS WORKING JUST FINE"
    Andy Smith <astrosafe@yahoo.com>

(10) ANOTHER ASTEROID SCARE: WHY IS IT DIFFERENT TO 1999 AN10?
     Heidi B. Hammel <hbh@alum.mit.edu>

(11) WHAT I HAVE LEARNED FROM PAST ASTEROID SCARES
     Benny J Peiser <b.j.peiser@livjm.ac.uk>

=============
(1) IAU RETRACTION OF LATEST ASTEROID SCARE

http://www.iau.org/sg344.html

Additional Information on Asteroid (sic!) 2000 SG344
Issue date: Nov 5, 2000
 
On the afternoon of November 3, Carl Hergenrother of the Catalina Sky Survey
(CSS) near Tucson, Arizona, obtained and made available additional
observations of object 2000 SG344 from the CSS image archives. These
pre-discovery observations significantly improved the certainty of the
object's position in 2030 and effectively ruled out the chance of an Earth
impact in that year. As explained in the earlier release from the
International Astronomical Union (IAU), this was the most likely outcome of
the continuing investigations. With the new data, we can say that the
closest the object can approach the Earth in 2030 is 11 lunar distances on
September 23. These results are in agreement with those of Andrea Milani at
the University of Pisa, Italy.

While the new orbital calculations have ruled out the 2030 event, they have
also increased the likelihood of encounters in years after 2030. Studies of
those, and of the possibility that this object is a spacecraft booster
rocket from the Apollo era, are continuing. Additional observations of the
object will be possible in the coming months and these should further refine
the calculations and conclusions.

--------

MODERATOR'S NOTE: While the initial IAU impact threat announcement was
released to news outlets throughout the world by officials of the IAU WGNEO,
the international media, to my amazement, have not been informed about the
retraction of the asteroid scare by NASA and the IAU. As can be seen from
overblown scare stories reported last night on BBC Radio 4, in today's
Sidney Morning Herald, The Mirror (UK tabloid) and, I am sure, in many
hundreds of other news outlets around the globe, the failure by the IAU
WGNEO to disseminate the retraction of the 2030 impact warning has not
helped to limit this latest PR disaster. Michael Paine's unsuccessful
attempt to pass on the all-clear in Australia (see below), The Mirror's
sensationalist reporting (see below) and the fact that the main evening news
on BBC Radio 4 still featured a rather alarmist scare story as late as last
night (8.00pm GMT), only proves just how badly these events have been
handled by the IAU WGNEO. It also demonstrates yet again that significant
changes in the current IAU guidelines and the establishment of national
Spaceguard centres are necessary if we wish to improve our communication
with the public. BJP

==============
(2) ASTEROID THREATENS MAJOR IMPACT WITH EARTH

From The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November 2000, 11:05 AM
http://www.smh.com.au/breaking/0011/06/A29983-2000Nov6.shtml

Astronomy experts have issued their strongest warning that an asteroid could
be on a collision course with earth.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is predicting the object may
strike the planet on September 31, 2030.

A group of international experts made the prediction last week and the
forecast was backed by the IAU's technical review team.

Experts are predicting there is a 500-1 chance of a collision taking place.
Previous predictions have put the chance of an asteroid impact at tens of
thousands to one.

Two years ago, asteroid watchers claimed a mile-wide asteroid called XF-11
could hit earth in 2028. But recalculations forced them to withdraw their
predictions.

Astronomers have named the latest threat to earth 2000 SG344.

They are unclear about the composition of the space debris. The unusual
nature of its orbit suggests the object could be a man-made rocket booster
left over from the Apollo era.

The majority of experts (sic!) believe the SG344 is more likely to be an
asteroid with a diameter of 100-230 feet.

Earlier this year, scientists said an asteroid of this size would be large
enough to destroy everything within the boundary of the M25, the orbital
motorway around London.

Depending on its composition, the asteroid could cause devastation across
hundreds of square kilometres or simply disintegrate as it skims into the
atmosphere.

The IAU website describes the mystery object as "more interesting then
threatening".

On the newly-devised 10-point Torino scale, which grades the potential
threat of any impact from space, the SG344 is only graded as 1.

Across the solar system there are believed to be 100,000 asteroids of a
similar size to SG344. On average, one strikes Earth every 100 years.

The last collision was in 1908 when 1,120 square kilometres of forests were
flattened in central Siberia.

MODERATOR'S NOTE: Here is what Michael Paine has to say about the ongoing
scare story: "Unfortunately the editors of Sydney Morning Herald ignored an
email I sent to them yesterday pointing out that there was no longer a
threat in 2030."

=============
(3) SEPT 21, 2030: 500/1 IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD

From The Mirror, 6 September 2000
http://www.ic24.net/mgn/THE_MIRROR/NEWS/P13S4.html

SEPT 21, 2030: 500/1 IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD: ASTEROID ON COLLISION COURSE

PUT the date in your diary - there is a 500-to-one chance the world will end
on September 21 2030.

Scientists have found an asteroid which they calculate could hit Earth that
day with an explosion 100 times stronger than the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.


The odds for a collision may sound long but are about 1,000 times greater
than for any similar object yet discovered, said America's NASA experts.

The discovery of 2000 SG344 is the first time astronomers have made a
prediction about a collision with Earth - mirrored in the Hollywood
blockbuster Deep Impact. "We have never had a prediction at this high level
of probability," said NASA's David Morrison.

The asteroid was discovered on September 29 by two scientists using a huge
telescope in Hawaii. Its orbit was tracked by experts at NASA and in Finland
and Italy.

They think it is between 90ft and 210ft across - about the size of a three
storey office block - with an orbit that could coincide with the Earth's in
30 years.

At the moment they are not sure what it is.

It could be a piece of space junk, like a Saturn IV booster rocket
jettisoned from an Apollo launch in the 1970s, or an asteroid made of loose
stone and gravel - both of which would burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Or it could be a 23,000 ton lump of stone and iron, which would have the
same devastating effect as a two megaton nuclear bomb, killing millions if
it hit a built up area.

But scientists remain hopeful. Mr Morrison said: "My own feeling its that an
object this small would not be worth a great effort to deflect it, even if
it is on course toward Earth.

"I don't see an argument for any sort of crash effort."

And some of his colleagues reckon the nearest it will get is 15 times
further away than the moon.

If SG344 hit Birmingham it would kill up to 500,000 people and flatten the
city.

Towns within 50 miles like Coventry, Warwick, Worcester and Stratford would
be caught in the edge of the blast. Trees and land would be scorched and
people and animals killed or badly hurt.

Up to 100 miles away, in towns like Derby, Leicester, Gloucester, Milton
Keynes in Bucks and Peterborough, Cambs, cars would be overturned and
pedestrians knocked off their feet and blown though the air for several
metres.

The air would be red hot in the entire area from the heat of the asteroid
burning up in the atmosphere and the blinding light could be seen up to 300
miles away in the north of England.

The impact would send up a massive cloud of dust covering the entire
country, blocking out the sun and causing a mini ice age, affecting major
food-growing regions.

If the asteroid landed in the North Sea it would send a tidal wave charging
towards the coast, starting off about 30ft high but growing to almost 100ft
when it hit land.

Coastal towns from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Scarborough, North Yorks, down to
London and Dover, Kent, would be swamped by flooding which would spread
inland across the Yorkshire Dales, East Anglia, the Thames Valley and most
of the south coast.

The Government has appointed a task force of advisers to look seriously at
the threat of devastating asteroid collision.

Prof David Williams, ex-president of the Royal Astronomical Society and a
member of the task force, said: "The point is these impacts are of very low
frequency but very high consequence."

Copyright 2000, The Mirror

=================
(4) THE ASTEROID SCARE THAT DOESN'T GO AWAY

From Rob McNaught <rmn@aaocbn.aao.gov.au>
Sent: 06 November 2000 05:14 [as posted on the MPML mailing list]

I've just been asked to do a radio interview about the "collision of an
asteroid with the Earth in 2030".  When I said that this had now been
discounted, the reporter was rather incredulous as he had just picked up the
story from the UK and it quoted an official IAU press release. I really
don't want to get caught up in a controversy like with my stupid involvement
with the 1997 XF11 "affair", but I wonder how much has actually been learned
from it?

The following statement is from the IAU NEO home page
http://www.iau.org/neo.html
>There has been much discussion on the need to inform the public promptly
>when a future close approach has been predicted. A couple of such cases in
>recent years have resulted in considerable media activity, which has
>promptly died down when the danger was quickly disproved. It is clear that,
>as discoveries intensify, it becomes absurd and counterproductive to alert
>the public to every case under consideration: If a potential impact is a
>possibility a century from now, surely no harm is done by waiting a few
>months for confirmation or disproval of the danger. On the other hand,
>basic scientific principles of free access to scientific data and freedom
>in publishing scientific results should be respected also in this field of
>research.

The polarization created in the 1997 XF11 affair has perhaps blinded some to
one obvious truth, that orbits are more reliable when additional
observations are obtained. It might be appropriate to leave any announcement
until all avenues for obtaining additional observations have
been investigated.

In my radio interview, scheduled to be live in two hours time, I will NOT be
pitting one group against another, merely pointing out that this work
involves continued monitoring and improvement of orbits.  Given that the
possible threat has been discounted only a day after the announcement, I
wonder if the press might not see some interesting connections with previous
cases.

Cheers, Rob

Robert H. McNaught
rmn@aaocbn.aao.gov.au

============================
* LETTERS TO THE MODERATOR *
============================

(5) Re: NEW PRECOVERY DATA REVEALS NO IMPACT THREAT IN 2030

From David Tholen <tholen@IfA.Hawaii.Edu>

Benny Peiser wrote:
>
> In fact, the nominal miss distance for this object is now given as
> 0.0346 AU on 22 September 2000 (22.89 UT22.19). What this means is that
> the object will come no closer to the Earth in 2030 than 3 million miles!

No, the nominal miss distance does not mean that it will come no closer than
that.  There is a difference between a nominal miss distance and a minimum
miss distance.  The uncertainty in the nominal miss distance needs to be
taken into account, and then one needs to define what they mean by "minimum"
(for example, is the minimum two sigma less than the nominal or three sigma,
or four).
--Dave

MODERATOR'S NOTE: Dave is absolutely correct: It is the *minimum* miss
distance rather than the nominal miss distance of 0.0346 AU that will bring
2000 SG344 no closer than 3 million miles in 2030. My apologies.

=============
(6) WHAT'S WRONG WITH MAKING PUBLIC IMPACT ANNOUNCEMENTS AND THEN RETRACTING
THEM?

From Oliver Morton <abq72@pop.dial.pipex.com>

Dear Benny

I don't quite understand the tone of your recent bulletins. What's wrong
with making an announcement of a plausible possibility and then announcing
that new data have ruled it out? Whatever the system involved, the
overwhelming likelihood is that all announcements of
possible impactors will be followed up with the better data that rules the
collision out. Given that this is the case, it makes sense to make such
announcements as soon as they are warranted, and then follow up as and when
required. This way, experience will quickly teach people how to understand
such announcements, and what weight to give them. This process could get the
story beyond "crying wolf" and create a world where the asteroid hazard is
treated as the ever-present and interesting low risk phenomenon that it is, with policy
made accordingly.

And what's with "so-called Torino scale"? Whether it's a good scale or not,
surely there's no doubt that it is, indeed, legitimately called the Torino
scale. If what you mean is "fundamentally flawed", then say ao: "so-called"
just sounds snide...

as ever

oliver

=================
(7) 2000 SG344: PART OF AN OLD SPACE PROBE?

From Mark Kidger <mrk@ll.iac.es>

Dear Benny:

Thanks for keeping us up to date with news of 2000 SG344. It seems that,
like 1991 VG, this is strongly suspected of being a returning space probe.
The usual suspect is the Saturn IVb 3rd stage of the Saturn V - although,
unless there were developments that I have not seen, there was no very
satisfactory linkage for 1991 VG to any Apollo mission.

However, the Saturn IVb hypothesis has a problem, which is that very few
actually went into solar orbit. Most were crashed into the Moon as seismic
experiments. I think that only 3 or 4 are unaccounted for. In other words if
2 have now been spotted - 1991 VG and 2000 SG344 - our detection efficiency
for these boosters is surprisingly high for such small objects.

My question is, are there any other possible candidates? Many interplanetary
probes have gone into solar orbit, did any of them have a booster that went
into solar orbit with the probe? Could something like an Agena booster have
got into solar orbit? Someone in the list should know
the answer to this.

Mark Kidger

=============
(8) WHAT DOES NEW ORBITAL DATA TELL US ABOUT NATURE OF 2000 SG344?

From James Oberg <JamesOberg@aol.com>

B.J.Peiser@livjm.ac.uk writes:

<< As a result of the new data, there has been a dramatic improvement in
 the orbital uncertainty. >>

What does it tell us of the origin of the object, near Earth in 1971?

I've always suspected that 1991 VG was an Apollo SLA panel, with the
previous computations off because of significant photon pressure during the
twenty+ years of interplanatary drift. Why significant? If it's a flat,
light bright plate, it's area to mass may be more significant than assumed.

James Oberg

=============
(9) "THE SYSTEM IS WORKING JUST FINE"

From Andy Smith <astrosafe@yahoo.com>

Hello Benny and CCNet,

We think the system is working, just fine, and we want to commend you, the
IAU and JPL folks, Michael P., CATALINA and all of the others, for the way
you handled 2000 SG344.

The system is working and it was good to see the IAU 72-hour rule in
operation. An alert was issued, the media responded, the people were
informed and waited for clarification, clarification was issued and we all
went back to our normal activities...and it was all done out-in-the-open.
There is no panic, out-here, and even the media folks are getting used to
talking about the subject and about the problem.

As a public-based think-tank, of experts and non-experts, we are trying to
raise the level of public awareness and preparedness and we think the activities, of the  last
few days, were helpful and that they let people see that there is an open
early-warning effort; that we will be living with this threat, from-now-on;
and that we need political support and continued (but modest) funding (which
should come with increased awareness), in order to prepare.

Our ACE Scale (from Tunguska to Hale-Bopp) includes at least 100,000
dangerous objects and we have good data on only about 1% (1,000+ NEO, now
on-file, at MPC). We clearly have a long way to go  and there will be many
more alert notices and, with luck, we will get much more support from the
governments of the world, to mount an effective defense and good civil
preparedness programs. By-the-way, more than half of the 300 or so NEO
discoveries, this year, are in the sub-kilometer category.

Open-Study Groups

We are organizing a good open-study group, to look at the impact suffocation
problem and possible countermeasures and the CCN is a great way to find
study participants and get inputs.

We are taking a hard-look at the failure of Biosphere 1 (due to oxygen
depletion); the North American K-T dinosaur egg pathology issue (thin
shells); many experiments, being done by one of our local labs, on
inhalation toxicology and hypoxia (using data on a variety of animals);
reverse photosynthesis (plants also begin to use oxygen, as the sun-light
decreases) and many other interesting areas of study. We will keep you
posted.

SPE 2000

There is more information, on the Web, about the September Space Shield
conference but we have not seen a summary of the meeting or any of the
abstracts and papers. We hope they will be coming, soon, and we commend the
SSF for sponsoring the meeting.

Planetary Defense Honor Roll

Our 400-year list, of major world contributors to the cause of planetary
asteroid/comet defense, is growing and, fortunately, most of the big players
are still with us (and many read the CCN letters). We appreciate and respect
all of you.

We will put a draft list on CCN, soon, to be sure we haven't overlooked
anyone. Our initial list (to be distributed at our May Asteroid/Comet
Workshop/ISDC2001) will, of course, continue to grow.

Cheers

Andy Smith

=============
(10) ANOTHER ASTEROID SCARE: WHY IS IT DIFFERENT TO 1999 AN10?

From Heidi B. Hammel <hbh@alum.mit.edu>

Hi Benny,

I have having difficulty reconciling your preface to the announcement of
2000 SG344 with your earlier position on 1999 AN10. (CCNet SPECIAL: ASTEROID
1999 AN10 ON POTENTIAL COLLISION COURSE WITH EARTH IN 2039, Tue, 13 Apr
1999).

Perhaps you can clarify why you now find it "odd," "premature," and
"unnecessary" to inform the interested public about this most recent case,
when it seems that such notification is exactly what you called for back in
1999. Are there subtle distinctions between the two cases that I am missing?

Sincere thanks for any explanation.

Heidi
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Dr. Heidi B. Hammel                        Phone:  203-438-3506
Senior Research Scientist                  Alt Ph: 203-894-2960
Space Science Institute - CT Office        Fax:    203-894-2961
72 Sarah Bishop Road                       Email:  hbh@alum.mit.edu
Ridgefield, CT 06877

=============
(11) WHAT I HAVE LEARNED FROM PAST ASTEROID SCARES

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

Heidi is right to point out the differences she notices between the handling
of the 1999 AN10 asteroid scare and my criticism of the latest developments
surrounding 2000 SG344. Perhaps this is the right time to provide an
explanation for these changes from my point of view:

Since April 1999, a number of additional asteroid scares have occurred. Some
of these false alarms caused alarmist headlines similar to those we are
currently observing. In all but one of these cases, the public impact threat
announcements had to be retracted only hours after they were made. The main
reason for my growing uneasiness and skepticism about these ambarrassing
alarms has come about as a direct consequence of the BF19 asteroid scare
early in the year.  

On 8 February 2000, one day after announcing that asteroid 2000 BF19 poses a
small but non-zero impact threat to Earth in 2022, Andrea Milani had to
retract his impact threat announcement. Within hours of his statement made
on the MPML mailing list, observational data of the object taken *before*
the announcement was made had neutralised his initial calculations. Not
surprisingly, Andrea Milani concluded his statement with a desideratum: "It
is now time to look at this 'event' with calm, and to try and figure out how
it was handled, what we have learned from this case (which was, again,
different from the previous ones), and how to do better next time."

In response to the BF19 debacle, I wrote a comprehensive report about the
scientific and public handling of asteroid 2000 BF19, comparing it also to
previous asteroid scares. In this report, I highlighted the main mistakes
(including my own, i.e. posting the false alarm on CCNet) which led to the
BF19 scare and warned that unless changes to the flawed IAU guidelines were
made, we would face another PR debacle "sooner rather than later."

Here are some extracts from my report which was sent to the members of IAU
WGNEO on 24 March 2000:

"I too believe that a re-assessment of the latest in a series of recent
asteroid scares is desirable. The exigency to critically review this case
derives not only from the fact
that the BF19 announcement made news headlines around the world and caused
many people to worry about another asteroid threat quite unnecessarily. More
to the point, the events surrounding the BF19 case raise important questions
about the current level of co-operation (and non co-operation) within the
NEO research community and its public accountability in the face of obvious
shortcomings.
 
I have written this report with the intention to establish how this asteroid
story unfolded and how it came to its sudden conclusion. I also hope that my review, which
does not claim to be comprehensive or unbiased, can provide some insights
and background information that may help to improve the handling of similar
cases in the future.
 
This report is addressed to the active NEO search community. I had hoped,
indeed expected, that the IAU WGNEO would take the initiative to re-assess
this case given that it falls into its self-declared remit to scrutinise the
handling of impact-related announcements. Yet, in notable contrast to the
harsh and public attacks by members of the WGNEO in the wake of the 1997
XF11 events, none of the following four asteroid scares has drawn any
criticism. 
 
Unless we understand and accept that crucial mistakes were made in the
course of these events, I fear that we will be confronted with similar
aggravation and embarrassment sooner rather than later."

"One of the most serious flaws of the WGNEO is the absence of the most
active and important observers and search programmes on the Organising
Committee of this self-selected working group. It is therefore not at all
surprising that statements or actions by OC members are frequently
uninformed, misguided or simply incorrect.
 
It is my contention that, had some of the observers involved in the BF19
case been part of the discussion and consultation of the IAU, it would have
become clear that the support the BF19 announcement has received by members
of the WGNEO would not have been shared by most of the observers actively
involved in this and most of the previous asteroid scares.
 
As far as professional astronomers are concerned, a private e-mail to those
who could confirm the calculations and to those observers who can do
something about the object would be much more appropriate than issuing a
public false alarm.
 
The list of follow-up observers for NEAs is relatively short and well known.
A private e-mail to those observers would be all that is needed to get some
additional observations, and to check for possible prediscovery images.
Whenever such a prediction is available and the object is still observable,
the e-mail is appropriate. Given really short arcs of the thousands of
main-belt asteroids that are detected each lunation, Earth impact
trajectories could be forced through many
of them. Yet it would definitely not be appropriate to send out any sort of
announcement. An 8-day arc doesn't produce any sort of certainty in an orbit
prediction, unless the body is close by, and then only for short-term (next
week/month at most) predictions. What is more, it was fairly clear that with
such a short arc, any additional observation would likely make a dramatic
difference 22 years into the future.
 
However, requesting observations privately could result in accusations of
'cover up' and the public's right to know - unless this procedure is
generally accepted and institutionalised. In the case of BF19, a private
e-mail to some observers and a waiting period of one day or
two would have seemed a reasonable course of action.
 
How, therefore, might observers be alerted to the need for observations and
archival searches without the transmission of undue alarms to the press and
public? For a start, it would not be a problem for the MPC to draw attention
discreetly to temporary "virtual impactors." [Addition: At the same time,
and in order to counter any cover-up accusations, such information can be
posted publicly on the NEODys Risk Page, my addition BJP].

That the IAU WGNEO offers to perform computational reviews for Torino levels
1 and above is even odder, when one considers that the Torino Scale,
proclaimed as something *only* for use in presenting impact threats to the
public, is suddenly being used for a very specialised professional purpose.
In any case, it has become only too obvious that the existence of the Torino
Scale, flawed as it is in several aspects, has been quite irrelevant and
ineffective in terms of its main aim of enlightening the public.

In fact, we could in the future have cases of objects reaching Torino level
6 or 7 (presumably with the associated worry to the public), before
plummeting to zero (absolute zero, that is) as soon as someone identifies
the object on an old plate. [Despite my 24 March warning, this is exactly
what happened with the false alarm over SG344; we should count our blessings
that it is a tiny object rather than a larger asteroid because otherwise it
might have easily reached a much higher Torino Scale level - with associated
asteroid hysteria; BJP, 6/11/00] Each of the five virtual impactors of the
past two years has been interesting and has contributed to a learning
process for us all. If we can really make progress, now, on the matter of
alerting observers but not bothering the public unduly, I would regard that
as a fine achievement."

---

Unfortunately, the IAU WGNEO decided not to discuss the report and its
recommendations. Instead, its leadership claimed that nothing went wrong
with the handling of BF19 and that the IAU guidelines were ideal for
handling future impact threat announcements. It was therefore just a
question of time before another PR fiasco happened. I regret that we have to
endure yet another public embarrassment, but hope that this time the IAU
will take action and learn its lesson.

Benny J Peiser

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