Australian Official Says Search
for Deadly Asteroids 'Fruitless'

By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer

An Australian government official dismissed a plea by scientists that his country spend money searching for potentially threatening asteroids that could only be spotted from the Southern Hemisphere, calling it a "fruitless, unnecessary, self-indulgent exercise."
On the Australian television program 60 Minutes, science minister Peter McGauran said a lot of worries keep him up at night, but asteroids are not among them.
"I'm not going to be spooked or panicked into spending scarce research dollars on a fruitless attempt to predict the next asteroid," McGauran said.
The comments aired Sunday, roughly six weeks after McGauran received a letter signed by 91 asteroid scientists and other proponents of more a more rigorous search program. The letter, first reported by on Jan. 31, pointed out that most known asteroids have been spotted from the Northern Hemisphere, so the skies below the equator now hold the greatest potential for a surprise strike.
No asteroids are currently known to be a direct threat to Earth. Leading experts agree, however, that it is only a matter of time before one strikes. And they say that less than $1 million annually could fund an adequate program for finding large asteroids using an existing Australian telescope that had previously been used for the task.
Australia pulled funding for the effort in 1996.
McGauran accused the proponents of gathering together only "scientific generalists" in making their plea.
In fact, the letter McGauran received was signed by several leading asteroid hunters and researchers from 17 countries, including four scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which leads the primary worldwide asteroid search effort. Other NASA scientists supported the letter but did not sign it because they felt it improper to become involved in the political aspect of the debate, has learned.
"I want the astronomers themselves, under the supervision of an objective worldwide working party, making a true and proper assessment," McGauran said. "I'm just not convinced that the hype and alarm and even fear-mongering is enough to justify an instant investment."
While the language used by asteroid hunters does sometimes sound frightening, the U.S. Congress thought the threat from space real enough to mandate that NASA find 90 percent of potentially dangerous asteroids larger than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) by 2008. There is wide consensus that some effort will be required in the Southern Hemisphere if that goal is to be reached.
Other asteroid researchers, also appearing on the 60 Minutes program, disagreed with McGauran.
"Australia in this area is a pariah," said Duncan Steel, who used to work on the Australian asteroid search but now teaches at the University of Salford in England. "It's regarded as being a total outcast. It is the only country ever to have closed down a successful asteroid program when all the other countries are gearing up."
The most frightening scenario -- one thought to be repeated several times during the history of the planet -- is of an incoming rock larger than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles). An impact by a rock that size would likely blot out the Sun, ruin farming and send humans into a Dark Ages existence.
Smaller but still significant asteroids hit Earth as often as once every couple of centuries and could destroy a city if on target.
"This is just a lottery," said author and physicist Paul Davies. "These objects don't come on cue. It's totally random."
Steel claimed during the program that there are fewer people searching for asteroids worldwide than there are employees at the average McDonalds. He and several other international experts support an organization called Spacewatch, a worldwide effort to organize and promote efforts to find potentially threatening asteroids.
Various researchers frequently disagree over exactly how Spacewatch should conduct the search and what minimum size asteroid ought to be actively sought out. But there is near unanimous agreement that a real threat exists and that mitigating that threat requires a telescopic sky search from the Southern Hemisphere.
The threat, however, is very likely not immediate. The chances of a globally destructive space sucker punch are very slim. And if an incoming rock provided years of warning, as many experts say is likely, an effort might be mounted to deflect or destroy the asteroid.
Whatever the odds, several space rocks have hit Earth in the past. Many scientists believe an asteroid or comet impact 65 million years ago led to the demise of the dinosaurs.
"The dinosaurs did not have a space program," Steel said. "That's why they died."

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