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

Status Report From: Ames Research Center
Posted: Tuesday, August 6, 2002

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 organization. To subscribe (or unsubscribe) contact dmorrison@arc.nasa.gov. For additional information, please see the website: http://impact.arc.nasa.gov. If anyone wishes to copy or redistribute original material from these notes, fully or in part, please include this disclaimer.

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