- An Australian government official dismissed a plea by
scientists that his country spend money searching for potentially
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
scarce research dollars on a fruitless attempt to predict the next
- The comments aired Sunday, roughly six weeks after
received a letter signed by 91 asteroid scientists and other proponents
of more a more rigorous search program. The letter,
first reported by SPACE.com on Jan. 31, pointed out that most known
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
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
but did not sign it because they felt it improper to become involved in
the political aspect of the debate, SPACE.com has learned.
- "I want the astronomers themselves, under the
of an objective worldwide working party, making a true and proper
McGauran said. "I'm just not convinced that the hype and alarm and
even fear-mongering is enough to justify an instant
- While the language used by asteroid hunters does
sound frightening, the U.S. Congress thought the threat from space real
enough to mandate that NASA find 90 percent of potentially dangerous
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
- The most frightening scenario -- one thought to be
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
- Smaller but still significant asteroids hit Earth as
often as once every couple of centuries and could destroy a city if on
- "This is just a lottery," said author and
Paul Davies. "These objects don't come on cue. It's totally
- 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
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
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."