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French Advances in Sceince and Technology: Issue #347 Unfriendly Skies (Asteroid monitoring)

Press Release From: French Advances in Science and Technology
Posted: Tuesday, July 2, 2002

When an asteroid a few dozen meters in diameter whizzed past the earth earlier this month nobody was the wiser until a few days after the near miss. Some scientists think it would be well worth some research expenditure to begin a more systematic head-counting of loose cannon on the earth's orbital plane in order to have a better chance of predicting future collision possibilities.

Astronomers at the CNRS/Paris Observatory's Celestial Mechanics Institute are preparing a project to fill in the holes in what is currently the only serious attempt to cast a visual net through the solar system for "catching" asteroids, Linear, an American program employing automatically controlled twin telescopes. The French team is concerned that Linear can only pick up objects of more than a kilometer in diameter, does not see anything in the southern hemisphere sky, nor can it track accurately any body whose trajectory lies even partly in the southern skies. Moreover, it takes Linear a month to complete its bit-by-bit scan, during which an asteroid could easily appear and disappear, thus escaping detection. Their first priority is a proposal to the European Southern Observatory to install a 3-4 foot telescope to begin automatic scanning from Chile, to complement Linear's northern lookout, then they plan to call for several 10-15 ft telescopes to begin searching the heavens for smaller asteroids still of a size to inflict a good deal of damage.

┐Sb`nterviewed in the daily press, one the team's leaders criticized the scoffing of certain public figures at such a waste of money, pointing out that the costs are minimal (a few hundred thousand euros annually) compared to the enormous if slight risk surveillance would help avoid. In answer to the obvious question of what good a warning would do, most scientists suggest that as the catalogue of asteroids grows the chances increase that that information would be available several decades ahead of time, thus permitting clever earthlings enough time to dream up a suitable way to divert the menace. (Le Monde, June 28, p23, Pierre Barthélémy)

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