Expand the Hunt for Dangerous Asteroids

Status Report From: Planetary Society
Posted: Thursday, January 26, 2006


Dear Member,

Last year, briefly, it looked as though the unthinkable was coming true.

A newly discovered asteroid -- dubbed Apophis -- appeared to be on a collision course with Earth. Its impact could annihilate a city, or set off a gargantuan tsunami. For a few tense weeks, the world's telescopes swiveled to watch the asteroid and pinpoint its trajectory.

It is now clear that Apophis will miss Earth by a few thousand miles in 2029. But what of the estimated 200,000 asteroids we haven't yet spotted? The world is woefully unprepared to deal with them.

You can help change all that!

Two decades ago, when The Planetary Society first began supporting the investigation of near-Earth objects (NEOs) -- those vast swarms of asteroids and comets silently orbiting around our Sun -- we were pioneers in what much of the space community considered a "scientific backwater."

Not any more. Today, investigation of NEOs is recognized as urgent by virtually the entire scientific community. Yet -- despite that -- research lags, and there is still no concrete plan in place for humanity's response if we discover an asteroid headed our way.

And as Apophis demonstrates, it could happen...indeed, it's just a matter of time before it does happen!

With Apophis we got advance warning -- 25 years, hopefully long enough for the world's governmental bureaucracies to cut through red tape to design and implement a sensible response. In the future, we might have much less time to react. What if we only got five years of advance warning...or five months?

That's a question haunting many of us in the space sciences...and that's why, today, The Planetary Society -- with your dedicated support -- is a leader in the quest to find, track and figure out a way to avoid collisions with potentially dangerous asteroids and comets.

We're fighting hard for increased NEO research and preparation on two fronts: through our Gene Shoemaker NEO Grant Fund and, starting just recently, through an exciting joint project to analyze asteroid threats with the B612 Foundation.

We believe that we must do more...and we can do more to vigorously expand the hunt for these objects, and the race to find effective ways to deal with any that could threaten our planet.

You can help us support NEO research at:

For every Apophis we know of, there may be dozens, perhaps hundreds, more. Despite the thousands of asteroids spotted and tracked so far, an estimated 200,000 of critical concern remain undiscovered.

With our Shoemaker Fund grants, we're supporting the asteroid hunters: brilliant investigators around the world who find, track, and study asteroids. And now we're also helping plan an effective response to asteroid threats via our support of the B612 Foundation -- a recently created organization exclusively dedicated to that important work. Former Apollo astronaut (and long-time Society supporter) Rusty Schweickart is one of the people behind the B612 Foundation -- which is named after the asteroid in the children's book, The Little Prince.

The specific B612 project that we're hoping to support is aimed at filling part of the gap by creating a system of computerized "automated" maps that will visually depict the specific narrow corridor across the face of the planet within which any given asteroid would strike.

It's a way of making the threats "real" -- for nothing focuses attention like seeing how your own community would be affected. And, because the corridors typically cross national boundaries, this system will also vividly show how this is a truly global danger requiring international coordination.

When completed, B612 will have created an Asteroid Impact Mapping System to more quickly and accurately tell the public -- and government leaders -- about threats posed by newly found asteroids. This information will then be made widely part, via our website as well as B612's.

Of course that's just a small part of what you, through the Society, can do to lead the way in NEO research. There's also our ongoing Shoemaker Fund program as well.

Named after the legendary planetary geologist, Gene Shoemaker -- the man who first proved that NEO impacts had profoundly shaped our modern world's face -- the Fund has proven an invaluable mechanism for supporting "small" (but incredibly productive!) research projects and lone investigators.

In 2005, we were able to back five innovative scientists in five countries. Our funds went to upgrade telescopes, procure super-sensitive CCD cameras, and pay for innovations in optics.

The problem is...we had to say "no" more often than "yes." For every grant we made, there were several entirely worthy requests we had to turn down. As I said above, we just have to do more...and in 2006, a very good start would be to say "yes" to more of those who turn to us for help.

Here is where you come in. As always, whatever The Planetary Society does -- every decision, every project, every grant, every move -- happens because you and our other Members say it can happen. As a true "grassroots-based" organization, we don't live on government funding; we exist and thrive only because of the vision, commitment and generosity of our Members.

The Shoemaker Fund -- and all the projects it has financed over the years -- is one testament to that. So, too, is our support of the B612 Foundation's project. That's why your partnership -- in the form of a special contribution today -- is so important.

It goes without saying that opportunities to save the world don't come along every day. But by advancing the world's knowledge of NEOs -- and making intelligent preparations for the day when one is found that really does have us in the cross-hairs -- you and I could do just that. An investigator we fund could be the one who finds a threatening asteroid early, giving us the time needed to respond...the time needed to, literally, save the world!

We'll be determining our 2006 Shoemaker Grant recipients soon. The researchers are counting on us... and we're counting on you. Thank you.

Louis Friedman
Executive Director

P.S. If you haven't received it already, you will probably be getting a letter from Rusty Schweickart about this project in the mail. If you have already sent in your donation we thank you.

Make NEO Research Happen!

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