Dear friends and colleagues,
The Australian Government is currently looking into renewing the funding of
a dedicated Australian Spaceguard programme (The Age, 9th January). Our NEO
colleagues in Australia and many of us around the world welcome this
reassessment. We sincerely hope that Australia will soon rejoin the
international effort to deal with the asteroid threat.
In consultation with our friends down under, we have written an Open Letter
to the Australian Government. In this letter, we convey our growing concern
about the lack of a dedicated NEO programme in the Southern Hemisphere. We
also appeal to the Government to revive its NEO programme and rejoin the
international Spaceguard effort.
Please help us with this initiative and sign the Open Letter which I have
Thank you for your support.
With best regards,
Liverpool, 22 January 2002
An Open Letter to the Australian Federal Government from International
The Hon John Howard, MP, Prime Minister of Australia
The Hon Peter McGauran, MP, Minister for Science
The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson, MP, Minister for Education, Science and Training
Senator the Hon Robert Hill, Minister for Defence
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP, Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Australia's contribution to Spaceguard
Spaceguard is the name given to an international effort to search the skies
for asteroids that might collide with the Earth. The name was coined by Sir
Arthur C Clarke in a 1973 novel that described how mankind set up an
asteroid detection and defence network after a large asteroid
struck Italy and devastated southern Europe. Since the novel was written the
risks and grave consequences of asteroid impacts have been recognised and
studied. Scientists around the globe are now working to ensure that Clarke's
scenario of a sudden, deadly impact does not occur.
The United States is the main contributor to the search effort, with several
telescopes dedicated to Spaceguard. Japan recently constructed a new
telescope facility for Spaceguard work and Europe is in the process of
setting up search telescopes and the vital support systems to analyse the
data from the searches.
Rob McNaught from Siding Spring in New South Wales runs the only
professional asteroid tracking project in the southern hemisphere. This
operation is funded mostly by the United States and is associated with the
Australian National University. It was set up in recognition of the need for
Spaceguard telescopes in the southern hemisphere. Gordon Garradd, an
astronomer from Loomberah in New South Wales, receives some funds from NASA
for critical southern hemisphere follow-up observations using a home-made
However, a much greater search effort, including a larger telescope, is
needed to detect asteroids that pass through southern skies. It would cost
several million dollars to set up a suitable facility in Australia but some
of this might be covered by contributions of equipment from the USA.
Operational costs should be less than $1 million per year. This is a highly
cost effective investment in the prevention of loss of life and severe
economic damage from asteroid impacts.
McNaught and Garradd were previously in a team of Australian astronomers,
led by Dr Duncan Steel, who searched for asteroids between the late 1980s
and 1996. They found about one third of new threatening asteroids discovered
during this period, demonstrating Australian expertise and the importance of
searching southern skies. Australian government funding for the project was
withdrawn in 1996 and the team disbanded.
The United Nations and the OECD have recognised the potential hazard to our
civilisation from asteroid impacts. This month the OECD is looking at the
issue as part of its Global Science Forum and recently asked developed
nations to indicate their plans to contribute to the Spaceguard effort.
A major global Spaceguard effort could provide decades of warning prior to
an impact. This would be sufficient time to refine the space technology
needed to nudge a threatening asteroid into a harmless orbit, or to evacuate
the predicted impact area. Without Spaceguard there would be too little
warning to prevent a disaster. This is clearly demonstrated by the recent
close approach of a 300m wide asteroid. It was discovered only a few days
before it passed by the Earth and, had it been on a collision course, there
is little that could have been done to prevent possibly millions of
casualties when an area the size of Tasmania would have been devastated.
We note that a spokesperson for Science Minister Peter McGuaran said that
the Government would look into renewing the funding of a dedicated
Australian Spaceguard programme (The Age, 9th January). We welcome this
reassessment of the issue and look forward to Australia rejoining the
international effort to deal with the asteroid threat.
Mark Bailey, Armagh Observatory, UK
Andrea Carusi, IAS, Area Ricerca CNR Tor Vergata, Italy
Paul Davies, Australian Centre for Astrobiology, Macquarie University
Ann Druyan, CEO, Cosmos Studios
Tom Gehrels, The University of Arizona, USA
Karl S. Kruszelnicki, School of Physics, The University of Sydney
Eleanor Helin, NEAT Program, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA
David H. Levy, Jarnac Observatory
Brian Marsden, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA
Benny Peiser, Liverpool John Moores University, UK
Jay Tate, International Spaceguard Centre, UK
Jana Ticha, Klet Observatory, Czech Republic
Don Yeomans, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA
Bob Kobres, University of Georgia, USA
CCCMENU CCC for 2002