Press Release

Planetary Society Protests Stop to Near-Earth Object Observations

By SpaceRef Editor
December 19, 2001
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The Planetary Society strongly condemns NASA’s decision,
announced today, to terminate radar observations of Near Earth
Objects (NEOs) from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Arecibo
is the most powerful radio observatory on Earth and is the most
accurate instrument we have for studying NEOs.


NASA made its decision because of being inadequately funded to meet a
congressionally mandated goal of detecting all objects larger than
one kilometer in near-Earth orbits by 2008.


"Arecibo radar observations are crucial for determining the
exact location, speed and direction of objects that approach
Earth," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary
Society. "We need this information to know how significant the
probability is of any one asteroid hitting the Earth. It is
irresponsible for Congress to mandate that NASA undertake asteroid
and comet detection, and then to not provide sufficient funds for
that program."


The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Goldstone Tracking
Station in Barstow California, which is part of the Deep Space
Network, are the only two radar sites capable of asteroid
observations. Goldstone is not as powerful as Arecibo and is very
busy supporting spacecraft missions.


The funding problem arose when funds to provide facility support at
Arecibo had to be taken out of the asteroid observation program in
NASA. That program includes the high-priority optical telescope
searches for Near-Earth Objects, a class of bodies that includes
asteroids and comets whose orbits carry them close by our planet.


Radar observations provide the very accurate position and velocity
information necessary to determining the orbits and predicting the
future paths for the objects that come very close to Earth.


"The decision to eliminate these Arecibo observations, and not
obtain precision data, is very short-sighted," commented
Friedman. "If an object is discovered headed to Earth, we are
certainly going to wish we had the ability to track it
accurately."


In addition to providing detailed position and velocity information,
the Arecibo observations also are often the only way to characterize
the NEO’s shape and rotation. This information is critical to the
science of NEOs, and to understanding their origin and evolution, and
the important role they have played in the evolution of terrestrial
planets.


A NEO that struck the Earth 65 million years ago triggered the
extinction of the dinosaurs and most species then flourishing. 
Another such object could come our way at any time.

SpaceRef staff editor.