Press Release

The Planetary Society Funds Sky Watchers

By SpaceRef Editor
August 1, 2002
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The Planetary Society has awarded five Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object
Grants for 2002 to researchers in three nations. Named for one of the
pioneers in the field, the grants fund discovery, tracking, and follow-up
observations of near-Earth objects (NEOs) — asteroids and comets whose
orbits come close to Earth.

Grant winners include John Broughton of Australia; Matt Dawson of
Luxembourg; and Richard Kowalski, James McGaha, and Roy Tucker of the
United States.

For nearly two decades, The Planetary Society has been a leader in
advocating and funding the search for NEOs. The Society’s Shoemaker Grants
enable international and amateur observers to make greater contributions to
the field.

Only about 55-60% of the estimated total number of one-kilometer or larger
objects that cross Earth’s orbit have been discovered. Even though various
astronomical groups and NASA advisory committees have recommended that the
search for NEOs be accelerated, government support for searches and
follow-up programs remains modest.

“Although government funding of search programs has increased in recent
years, in part due to Planetary Society efforts, serious gaps in funding
for NEO research still exist,” says Planetary Society Director of Projects
Bruce Betts. “Gaps are particularly severe in the area of dedicated follow
up observations that actually determine NEO orbits.”

“It doesn’t help knowing a NEO is out there if you don’t know whether it
has Earth’s name on it,” Betts added. “This is an area where our grant
program, combined with dedicated amateurs and professionals, can make a
real difference.”

A SWARM OF NEAR EARTH OBJECTS

Earth travels through a swarm of near-Earth objects of various sizes and
orbits. Scientists only recently have begun to understand the significant
contribution NEOs have made to the evolution of Earth — and to life on our
planet. It is now believed that impacts from comets and asteroids have
shaped the evolution of all planets in our solar system.

“We need to study the NEOs more to determine not only their precise orbits
but also their composition – what these objects are made of,” said
Shoemaker NEO Grant coordinator Daniel D. Durda.

So far, over 1940 near-Earth asteroids have been discovered; more than 600
of these are larger than one kilometer across. Scientists estimate,
however, that there are about 1000 near-Earth asteroids larger than one
kilometer and 50,000 to 300,000 objects larger than 100 meters in
size. One of them could impact our planet with devastating results.

NEOs have collided with Earth in the past, wreaking devastation. The
Chicxulub crater off the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was
created by an Earth-colliding asteroid 65 million years ago, generating a
global catastrophe that many scientists believe led to the extinction of
the dinosaurs and over 75% of other animal and plant species.

NEOs are scientifically valuable objects that may one day serve as
intriguing targets for human missions when we expand human exploration
beyond the Earth-Moon system.

THE GENE SHOEMAKER NEO GRANTS

Gene Shoemaker was a leader in the study of impact structures and an
advocate for NEO discovery and tracking programs before his death in 1997.
Shoemaker was one of the first scientists to demonstrate that the mile-wide
crater in Arizona — now known as Meteor Crater — was the result of an
impact by an asteroid 50,000 years ago.

The Gene Shoemaker NEO Grants are awarded to amateur observers, observers
in developing countries, and professional astronomers who, with seed
funding, could greatly increase their programs’ contributions to this
critical research.

Funding for the Gene Shoemaker NEO Grant program comes from The Planetary
Society’s members, whose voluntary dues and donations permit targeted
support of research and development programs in a number of areas.

An international advisory group recommends candidates to receive the grant
awards. The advisory group includes scientist and grant coordinator Durda,
as well as noted near-Earth object scientists Alan Harris, Jet Propulsion
Laboratory; Brian Marsden, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; Alain
Maury, Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur; Syuichi Nakano, Japan; and Jorge
Sahade, Argentina.

2002 SHOEMAKER NEO GRANT AWARD WINNERS

James McGaha, from Tucson, Arizona, was awarded $10,000 to automate the
operations of his 0.62-meter telescope. McGaha is among the most prolific
of amateur observers who follow up NEO discoveries made by the major survey
programs. His Grasslands Observatory is located at a dark site at an
altitude of 5,000 feet, but its remote location 55 miles from Tucson does
not allow for maximum fulfillment of its potential. The Shoemaker NEO grant
awarded to McGaha will be used to install a computerized control system to
allow automated operations at Grasslands Observatory and considerably
improve the efficiency of the NEO observations he will make.

John Broughton, from Reedy Creek, Queensland, Australia, has been awarded
$8,140 for the purchase of an Apogee AP6Ep CCD camera to be used on a new
computer-controlled 0.46-meter telescope. Over the last four years,
Broughton has recorded 25,000 images and obtained over 6,000 minor planet
position measurements, discovering 370 new objects in the process. The new
CCD camera purchased with Shoemaker NEO Grant funding will immediately be
put to work making follow up position reports on fast moving NEOs and NEOs
that are not observable by northern hemisphere observers.

Matt Dawson of Luxembourg has been awarded $6,300 to purchase an Apogee
AP47 CCD camera that will be used to follow up faint NEO discoveries.
Dawson, a dedicated amateur NEO observer, represents the Roeser Observatory
in Luxembourg and the Cote de Meuse Observatory in France, where 0.85-meter
and 0.5-meter telescopes are used for NEO recovery and follow up
observations. The two telescopes recently have been upgraded from manual to
computerized capability. A back-illuminated CCD camera will complete the
upgrades, allowing Dawson to reach magnitudes as faint as V=21 with the
larger telescope and V=19.5 with the smaller one.

Roy Tucker of Tucson, Arizona is an energetic promoter of amateur
participation in NEO search and follow up. Tucker was awarded $2,950 to
help enlist the support of other local amateur astronomers in reduction and
analysis of the vast quantities of image data produced by his prototype
telescope/camera systems. The three telescope systems produce more data
that any one person can fully examine and measure, so Tucker will purchase
additional software packages, a CD duplicator, and 1,200 blank CD-R disks a
year to archive and distribute the data among fellow local amateur
observers. Tucker will also purchase and share with other local observers a
CO2 snow cleaning system to efficiently and safely clean the optics of the
heavily used telescope systems.

Richard Kowalski of Zephyrhills, Florida is the owner, founder, and
maintainer of the Minor Planet Mailing List (MPML)
http://www.bitnik.com/mp, which over the last four years has become a vital
link between observers and other researchers worldwide involved in NEOs and
other minor planets. It costs Kowalski approximately $300 each year to run
and maintain the MPML and its associated web pages. The Planetary Society
will award Kowalski $300 per year for the next 3 years to fund MPML operations.

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CONTACT INFORMATION:

For more information, contact Susan Lendroth at (626) 793-5100 or by e-mail
at susan.lendroth@planetary.org.

THE PLANETARY SOCIETY:

Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded The Planetary Society
in 1980 to advance the exploration of the solar system and to continue the
search for extraterrestrial life. With members in over 140 countries, the
Society is the largest space interest group in the world.

The Planetary Society

65 N. Catalina Ave.

Pasadena, CA 91106-2301

Tel: (626) 793-5100

Fax: (626)
793-5528

E-Mail: tps@planetary.org

Web: http://planetary.org

SpaceRef staff editor.