Status Report

NEO News (08/06/02) Last words on NT7

By SpaceRef Editor
August 6, 2002
Filed under , ,

Dear Friends and Students of NEOs.

As expected, additional observations have eliminated the possibility
of an impact from asteroid 2002 NT7 in 2019. The “all clear” was
released on 26 July. Because the orbit of this asteroid brings it
close to Earth, there still remains a very low-probability chance of
impact in 2060. This possibility is likely to be quickly eliminated
as new data continue to accumulate. This reflects the normal working
of the Spaceguard system, as has been previously noted – there is
always an initial large uncertainty in the orbit of a newly
discovered NEA, which is resolved as new observations are made.

So why all the media fuss about NT7? There is a divergence of
opinion about what happened, much of it related to an apparent
difference in press practices (and public expectations) in the USA
and UK, the two countries in which most of the media stories
originated. Simply put, the British press seems to be more prone to
exaggerated headlines and lead-ins, combined with a dose of humor —
and the British public understands this and does not expect a high
level of technical accuracy. Alternatively, the Brits might say that
Americans lack a sense of perspective and perhaps also a sense of
humor. The following two items in this edition of NEO News deal with
these differing perspectives.

David Morrison

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DIALOGUE WITH DAVID WHITEHOUSE OF BBC

One of the first to break the story on NT7 was David Whitehouse,
senior science reporter on the BBC and holder of a doctorate in
astronomy. His story began: “An asteroid discovered just weeks ago
has become the most threatening object yet detected in space. A
preliminary orbit suggests that 2002 NT7 is on an impact course with
Earth and could strike the planet on 1 February, 2019 – although the
uncertainties are large.”

In a February 27 letter sent to Benny Peiser, Whitehouse defends
himself as follows:

“Most reports said, quite rightly, that, based on the limited data
available, it had an impact solution in 2019, but that more
observations would almost certainly rule out any collision. I cannot
agree that the vast majority of the reports give “no hint of the true
situation,” as one astronomer has commented . . . . This is a
subject of mixed messages as far as the media are concerned. I have
seen many comments from astronomers and Nasa saying (after they had
criticised the media) that NT7 will not hit us but then adding such
phrases as ‘ALMOST no chance’ and ‘the impact probability is NOT
ZERO’ and ‘there is a GOOD chance that this particular object won’t
hit us’ – actual quotes. Journalists can drive a cart and horses
between ALMOST and NOT-ZERO. Ask the politicians about it.”

Whitehead feels that his lead statement that “2002 NT7 is on an
impact course with Earth and could strike the planet on 1 February,
2019” was correct — but to my knowledge no astronomer who studies
NEAs agrees. To say that the orbit is highly uncertain but allows the
very low probability (of order 1 in 100,000) of an impact in 2019 is
simply not equivalent to saying that the asteroid is “on an impact
course with Earth” – at least the way I use the English language.
Maybe this is an example of the difference between British and
American usage.

Whitehouse’s second comment is also provocative — he seems to be
saying that anything that is not absolutely forbidden is fair game
for journalistic speculation — that “Journalists can drive a cart”
through qualified statements. Consider applying this same rule to
other areas where there are small probability risks that cannot be
completely eliminated. Would it be proper for journalists to write
that “Engineers warn that the Space Shuttle could explode on its next
launch”, or “Experts are planning for a major earthquake in the Los
Angeles region within the next week”, or “Sadam Hussein has missiles
equipped with biological and chemical warheads that he is ready to
launch tomorrow against Israel”. Would these be considered examples
of legitimate and responsible journalism?

David Morrison

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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
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please include this disclaimer.

SpaceRef staff editor.