Press Release  17 November 1998

Meteor shower highlights unknown comet risk to Australia

(Leonids Meteor Shower: Comets do cross the Earth's orbit!)

Astronomers have pointed out that tonight's Leonid Meteor Shower is a timely reminder that the paths of the Earth and comets do cross from time to time. The meteor shower should put on a spectatular display in the early hours of Wednesday morning in Australia. It is caused by sand-grain sized particles left in the wake of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. There is no chance of the Earth colliding with the comet this time but, had the timing been different, then a catastrophic impact might have occurred.

Spokespersons for Australian astronomy groups today called on the Australian government to re-commence the research into Earth-threatening asteroids and comets. Michael Paine, a safety Engineer and the NSW Co-ordinator of The Planetary Society Australian Volunteer Co-ordinators , said that Australia was letting the rest of the world down, and endangering its own citizens, by failing to support this research. Between 1990 and 1996 Australia was involved in a  highly successful search for Earth-threatening asteroids and comets, also known as Near Earth Objects (NEOs). This Spaceguard Programme was the only major research effort in the Southern Hemisphere until Australian Government funds were cut in 1996.

Peter Anderson, President of the Astronomical Association of Queensland said:  "This cessation of funding has caused a major deficiency in our ability to detect and track such objects and thus be in a position to identify and predict these threats. Much of the increasing Northern Hemisphere effort could also be wasted because of the limited (mainly amateur) follow up once objects move into southern skies.  Approaches to Government stressing the importance of the research and Australia's international obligations have not resulted in any action, principally, (it appears) because the responsibility falls between portfolios."

The Astronomers have called upon the Australian Government to immediately re-instate the Near Earth Object research programme. Instruments and observers are available though there is need for some upgrading of existing equipment.  The modest programme presently proposed using the University of New South Wales' Automated Patrol Telescope will cost in the order of $300,000 per year.

The astronomers have also called on the Australian Government to establish an Australian Spaceguard Working Party to develop and implement plans to quantify and deal with the threat from asteroids/comets.

"The working party should include astronomers, experts in risk management and hazard mitigation, defence personnel, geophysicists and space policy experts (probably including a representative from NASA). Its clear goal should be to get things done, not to debate the scientific worth of the research."

It is estimated that, so far, about 10% of NEOs of sufficient size to cause a global catastrophe have been found by astronomers around the world. Up until 1996 Australia contributed to about one-third of all NEO discoveries. This demonstrates the importance of a search effort in the Southern Hemisphere. Will Comet Tempel-Tuttle ever collide with the Earth? Not in the next few centuries, after which computer simulations start to become less accurate, but over millions of years it is thought that about 40% of NEOs will eventually hit the Earth.

Michael Paine,  NSW Co-ordinator, The Planetary Society Australian Volunteers
Phone Sydney  02 9451 4870   Fax 02 9975 3966

Peter Anderson, President, Astronomical Association of Queensland
Phone Brisbane  07 3300 6767   Fax  07 3300 3175