Ref: SGC 02/03 29 January 2002


An Open Letter to the Australian Federal Government from International Scientists

Australia's contribution to Spaceguard

A spokesperson for Science Minister, Peter McGauran, has recently stated that the Australian Government will investigate the renewal of funding for a dedicated Australian Spaceguard programme.

The international NEO research community welcomes this initiative, and wishes to encourage the Australian government to take a leading role in this new, exciting and relevant area of scientific research. An open letter, signed by over 90 leading researchers from around the world has been sent to key government officials in Australia encouraging support for an Australian Spaceguard programme. The text of the letter is attached to this release.

Key Points:

  • Spaceguard is the name given to an international effort to detect asteroids and comets that might collide with the Earth.  Such objects are referred to as Near Earth Objects (NEOs).
  • The United States is the main contributor to the search effort, and Japan recently constructed a new Spaceguard facility.  In Europe the British government's NEO Task Force report validated the hazard posed by asteroids and comets, and made a number of recommendations for British and international action.  Discussions on possible European projects, led by the UK, are ongoing.
  • The only professional asteroid tracking project in the southern hemisphere is funded mostly by the United States and is associated with the Australian National University.  However, a much greater search effort, including a larger telescope, is required to detect asteroids in the southern sky.
  • The AANEAS programme that searched for asteroids in the late 1980s and early 1990s found one third of new potentially hazardous asteroids discovered during that period.  Australian government funding for the project ceased in 1996 and the project terminated leaving the southern sky unpatrolled.
  • The United Nations and the OECD have recognised the potential hazard to our civilisation from asteroid impacts.
  • A global Spaceguard programme could provide decades of warning of an impact, providing sufficient time to refine the technology required to divert the threatening asteroid into a harmless orbit, or to evacuate the predicted impact area.  This is clearly demonstrated by the recent close approach of 2001 YB5, a 300m wide asteroid.
  • Contact:

    JR Tate Tel: +44 (0)1547 520 247
    The Spaceguard Centre Fax: +44 (0)1547 520 247
    Llanshay Lane Mobile: 07968 195 625
    Knighton, Powys LD7 1LW E-Mail:
    United Kingdom Website:

    Dr Benny J Peiser Tel: +44 (0) 151 231 4338
    Liverpool John Moores University E-Mail:
    School of Human Sciences
    Liverpool L3 3AF
    United Kingdom

    Michael Paine                                              Fax (+61 2) 99753966
    The Planetary Society Australian Volunteers Phone (+61 2) 94514870
    Beacon Hill, Sydney Australia. Email:

    Copy at

    On 28th February 2002 the letter was sent to:
    Prime Minister
    The Hon John Howard, MP

    Minister for Science
    The Hon Peter McGauran, MP

    Minister for Education, Science and Training
    The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson, MP

    Minister for Defence
    Senator the Hon Robert Hill

    Minister for the Environment and Heritage
    The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP


    The Spaceguard Centre

    Llanshay Lane



    LD7 1LW

    Tel: +44 (0)1547 520247

    Fax: +44 (0)1547 520247


    28 January 2002

    An Open Letter to the Australian Federal Government from International Scientists

    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 telescope.

    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 McGauran 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.


    Paul Abell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA

    Olga T. Aksenova, Blagoveschensk State University, Russia
    Gennady V. Andreev, Astronomical Observatory of Tomsk State University, Russia
    John Anfinogenov, Tunguska Preserver, Siberia, Russia
    Yana Anfinogenova, Siberian State Midical University, Russia
    David Asher, Bisei Spaceguard Center, Japan

    Mark Bailey, Armagh Observatory, UK
    Mike Baillie, Queen's University, Belfast, N. Ireland
    Michael J Barlow, University College London, UK
    Andrea Boattini, IAS, Area Ricerca CNR Tor Vergata, Italy
    Jiri Borovicka, Astronomical Institute, Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic
    Mark Boslough, Sandia National Laboratories, USA
    Peter Brown, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Western Ontario, Canada
    Larisa Budaeva, Tomsk State University, Siberia, Russia
    Andrea Carusi, IAS, Area Ricerca CNR Tor Vergata, Italy
    Silvano Casulli, Colleverde di Guidonia Observatory, Italy
    Clark R. Chapman, Southwest Research Institute, USA
    Andrew Cheng, Applied Physics Laboratory, USA
    Paul Davies, Australian Centre for Astrobiology, Macquarie University, Australia
    Ann Druyan, CEO, Cosmos Studios, USA
    Alan Fitzsimmons, Queen's University Belfast, UK
    Giuseppe Forti, Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Firenze, Italy
    Luigi Foschini, Istituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica, Italy
    Lou Friedman, The Planetary Society, USA
    Michael J. Gaffey, Space Studies, University of North Dakota, USA
    Valentina Gorbatenko, Tomsk Polytechnic University, Russia
    Vic Gostin, Dept.Geology & Geophysics, University of Adelaide, Australia
    Tom Gehrels, The University of Arizona, USA
    Ian Griffin, Space Telescope Science Institute, USA
    Valentin Grigore, The Romanian Society for Meteors and Astronomy (SARM), Romania
    Christian Gritzner, Dresden University of Technology, Germany
    Gerhard J. Hahn, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Germany
    Peter Haines, University of Tasmania, Australia
    Nigel Holloway, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority & Spaceguard UK
    Ola Karlsson, UDAS Program, Uppsala Astronomical Observatory, Sweden
    Colin Keay, The University of Newcastle, Australia
    Bob Kobres, University of Georgia, USA
    Natal'ya V.Kolesnikova, Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia
    Leif Kahl Kristensen, Institute of Physics and Astronomy, University of Aarhus, Denmark
    Karl S. Kruszelnicki, School of Physics, The University of Sydney, Australia
    Eleanor Helin, NEAT Program, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA
    Evgeniy M. Kolesnikov, Moscow State University, Russia
    Korado Korlevic, Visnjan Observatory - Spaceguard HR, Croatia
    Eugeny Kovrigin, Tomsk State University, Siberia, Russia
    Richard Kowalski - Quail Hollow Observatory, USA
    Yurij Krugly, Astronomical Observatory of Kharkiv National University, Ukraine
    David H. Levy, Jarnac Observatory, USA
    Dmitrij Lupishko, Kharkiv National University, Ukraine
    Terry Mahoney, Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, Spain
    Brian Marsden, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA
    Bruce Mackenzie, National Space Society, USA
    Ilan Manulis, The Israeli Astronomical Association, Israel
    Austin Mardon, Antarctic Institute of Canada
    Jean-Luc Margot, California Institute of Technology, USA
    Gianluca Masi, Bellatrix Observatory, Italy
    Alain Maury, CNRS, France
    John McFarland, Armagh Observatory, UK
    Natalya Minkova, Tomsk State University, Russia
    Joe Montani  The University of Arizona, USA
    Darrel Moon, Oxnard College, California, USA
    Thomas G. Mueller, Max-Planck-Institut, Garching, Germany
    Chernykh Nikolaj, Crimean Astrophysical Observatory, Crimea, Ukraine
    Steve Ostro, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA
    Trevor Palmer, Nottingham Trent University, UK
    Benny Peiser, Liverpool John Moores University, UK
    Joaquin Perez, Universidad de Alcala, Spain
    Paul Roche, University of Glamorgan, UK
    Maria Eugenia Sansaturio, University of Valladolid, Spain
    Lutz D. Schmadel, Astronomisches Rechen-Institut Heidelberg, Germany
    Hans Scholl, Observatoire de la Cote d'Azur, France
    Vladimir A. Shefer, Astronomical Observatory, Tomsk State University, Russia
    Carolyn Shoemaker, Lowell Observatory, USA
    Vadim A. Simonenko, Space Shield Foundation, Russia
    S Fred Singer, University of Virginia, USA
    Giovanni Sostero, Remanzacco observatory, Italy
    Reiner M. Stoss, Starkenburg Observatory, Germany
    Jonathan Tate, International Spaceguard Information Centre, UK
    Luciano Tesi, Osservatorio di San Marcello Pistoiese, Italy
    Jana Ticha, Klet Observatory, Czech Republic
    Josep M. Trigo-Rodriguez , University Jaume, Spain
    Roy A. Tucker, Goodricke-Pigott Observatory, Arizona, USA
    Harry Varvoglis, Department of Physics, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
    Gerrit L. Verschuur, University of Memphis, USA
    Fiona Vincent, University of St.Andrews, Scotland, UK
    Dejan Vinkovic, University of Kentucky, USA
    Vladimir Vorobyov, Pomor State University n.a. M.V. Lomonosov, Russia
    Chandra Wickramasinghe, Cardiff University, Wales, UK
    Gareth Williams, Minor Planet Center, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, USA
    Don Yeomans, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA
    Oleg M. Zaporozhets, Kamchatka State University, Russia
    Krzysztof Ziolkowski, Space Research Centre, Warsaw, Poland

    Additions (after the letter was sent)

    Michael Archer, Director of the Australian Museum
    Iwan Williams, Queen Mary, University of London

    Further letter sent by Spaceguard UK in May 20002.

    The Hon John Howard MP
    Prime Minister
    Parliament House, Canberra Australia

    Dear Mr Howard,

    On 28 January 2002 the International Spaceguard Information Centre sent an
    open letter to the Australian Federal Government from international
    scientists concerning Australia's contribution to the developing global
    Spaceguard programme.

    Although no formal reply has yet been received by any of the 91 signatories
    it would appear that the letter has caused considerable interest in the
    Australian media, and that the Minister for Science, Mr Peter McGauran, has
    made some comments in public on the subject.  I refer specifically to an
    interview on the Channel 9 '60 Minutes' programme aired on 17 March 2002.

    Sadly it would appear that Mr McGauran had been badly briefed, as many of
    his comments were factually incorrect.  It would be embarrassing for the
    Commonwealth of Australia should these comments be repeated in a more
    widely accessible forum.

    Mr McGauran stated that he was not going to be "spooked or panicked into
    spending scarce research dollars on a fruitless attempt to predict the next
    asteroid."  The use of the word "panicked" seems bizarre and misleading in
    this context, because it is now five years since Mr McGauran issued a press
    release (on 31 March 1997) announcing that the Australian Government was
    considering re-starting the asteroid search and tracking programme
    cancelled by your administration.

    No one is suggesting that fear should be the main driver for Near Earth
    Object (NEO) research.  However, the hazards posed by NEOs have been
    validated, and are significant.  The "attempts to predict the next
    asteroid" impact that are currently underway are far from fruitless.
    Discovery rates have increased by about a factor of ten over the past five
    years, mainly thanks to search projects in the United States carried out by
    express instruction of the government of that country.  Follow-up
    observations and orbital analysis are also moving on apace, though at a
    slower rate due to lack of funding and a coherent international programme.
    Mr McGauran then went on to describe the Spaceguard programme as a
    "fruitless, unnecessary, self-indulgent exercise".  We have seen that it is
    not fruitless, in that our knowledge of the contents of near-Earth space
    has been revolutionised by research carried out over the past several years
    in many countries (but not Australia).  With regard to the word
    "unnecessary", if Mr McGauran knows that to be a fact - that is, he knows
    that no asteroid impact on the Earth will occur within the next fifty to a
    hundred years - then clearly he is privy to information far beyond that
    available to all the astronomers in the world, who must admit that they
    know no such thing.  Perhaps Mr McGauran also does not insure his car,
    because he knows he will not have an accident within the next twelve
    months.  The British government, before accurate briefing, was of the same
    opinion concerning the asteroid impact hazard.  However, having
    commissioned a Task Force to investigate the hazard this attitude has
    changed radically.  In the US, Congress insisted in 1990 that NASA take
    action, and this resulted in the vast majority of current work in progress.

    The US has embarked on an ambitious programme of space-based research,
    investigating both asteroids and comets at close quarters, and ESA is
    actively pursuing similar projects.  In Japan a Spaceguard Centre has been
    established.  Within separate European nations there are active research
    projects on NEOs.  The immense contribution to planetary science made by
    such research can hardly be over-estimated, but there is a more important
    implication: such work is helping us to avert the next inevitable cosmic
    collision with the Earth.
     The term "self-indulgent" frankly leaves me speechless.  Not a single
    scientist that signed the open letter to your government stands to gain
    personally from an Australian Spaceguard project, except that they know
    that the global programme will be greatly aided by the gathering of the
    essential data that such a project would produce.  The increasing number of
    concerned scientists and other individuals around the world, including a
    substantial body of amateur expertise who conduct NEO research will be
    justifiably insulted by this comment.  An honourable man might consider
    that some sort of apology is in order.

    When Mr McGauran asks how many other astronomers agree with Dr Steel on the
    requirement for an Australian Spaceguard project he should have been made
    aware that there is near unanimous agreement on the gravity of the threat
    posed by NEOs.  Areas of disagreement centre only on the allocation of
    responsibility for dealing with it.  Many, with justification, regard this
    as a defence matter, while others consider it an issue for the scientific
    community, but this is a matter for politicians and decision makers to
    resolve; astronomers have alerted governments to the threat, and are
    attempting to develop solutions to the problem.  It was therefore somewhat
    surprising to hear the science minister attempting to garner astronomical
    support for his position by the implied threat of reduced funding.

    The matter is considered serious enough to have initiated careful
    assessment by the UN, OECD and various governments around the world.  When
    Mr McGauran suggests that "astronomers themselves, under the supervision of
    an objective worldwide working party make a true and proper assessment" he
    should have be aware that this has already been done under the auspices of
    the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which has established the IAU
    Working Group on NEOs (without notable Australian membership); by the UN
    which carefully considered the issue at the UNISPACE 3 conference in 1999,
    and also a dedicated meeting at the UN HQ in New York in 1995; by the US
    where Congress is actively involved; and in the UK where the Task Force,
    convened by the Science Minister (Lord Sainsbury), published a report
    making 14 substantive recommendations for British and international action.
     Since Mr McGauran's advisors have clearly yet to receive copies of this
    report, I enclose one for reference.  I note that the Task Force included
    three members: one a career diplomat and former science advisor to Mrs
    Thatcher whilst she was PM; one the President of the Royal Astronomical
    Society; and the third, a career science administrator, science director
    within the European Space Agency, and a member of the Anglo-Australian
    Telescope Board.  They very carefully consulted with a large number of NEO
    experts from around the world (none of them working in Australia because
    that expertise has been lost from your country).

    Finally, Mr McGauran described the signatories of the open letter as
    "scientific generalists."  Mr McGauran should have been advised that NEO
    studies are truly interdisciplinary in nature.  Of the 91 signatories, 82
    are professional astronomers or space scientists, the vast majority
    actively working in the field.  The remainder are specialists in the wide
    range of disciplines that are concerned in the evaluation, definition and
    eventual elimination of the impact hazard.

    The ill-considered comments made by the Australian Minister for Science are
    very similar to those made by the authorities in the UK five or six years
    ago.  However, in the UK the issue has been the subject of close and
    independent scrutiny, and the government attitude has now changed
    radically.  I would be most willing to provide any relevant information to
    your science establishment to assist them in their reappraisal of the NEO
    hazard in the light of scientific opinion worldwide, and the increasing
    public interest in the subject.  Since you doubtless would feel that I
    would represent a biased viewpoint, I would also be pleased to direct you
    simply towards independent information sources.

    Please let me be clear that we only wish to help Australia here to come to
    the correct decision.  Through ill-advice your Government has painted
    itself into a corner, and Mr McGauran has made comments that are easily
    shown to be false, and contradicted not only by scientists but also by
    politicians elsewhere.  NEOs pose a surprising but real hazard, and
    Australians are particularly at risk because such a large fraction of the
    population lives on the coasts, your cities facing the largest targets on
    Earth (i.e. the oceans).  In all democracies the elected government has a
    duty of care to its citizens, and it would not be too strong a term to say
    that, having been made aware of the NEO impact hazard, the Australian
    Government has broached that duty of care.  We who live elsewhere feel this
    lack of action on your part particularly strongly because of the need for
    action in the southern hemisphere.  We need you to be involved in this
    international programme.

    I await Mr McGauran's reply to the open letter with interest, and I would
    be grateful for your views on these issues.

    (Jonathon Tate, Spaceguard UK, March 2002)

    A response!

    Office of the Prime Minister

    14 May 2002

    Dear Mr Tate

    Thank you for your letter of 27 March 2002 to the Prime Minister regarding
    near-Earth objects (NEOs).  The Prime Minister has asked me to reply on his
    behalf. The delay in responding is regretted.

    The government appreciates that the international scientific community is
    concerned about the threat posed by NEOs.

    As you may already be aware, Australia is a member of the OECD's Global
    Science Forum, which agreed at its meeting in January 2002 to establish a
    Working Group to examine the issues related to NEOs. Australia supported the
    establishment of the Working Group and will participate in its

    The Australian government will consider the report of the Working Group when
    it is delivered in early 2003 and will assess the potential for further
    Australian involvement at that time.

    I would also note that the Australian government funds research through
    various mechanisms at universities, public sector research agencies, and
    private sector research laboratories. Most government funding is on a
    competitive basis, with proposals selected on merit and based on peer
    review, as in most other OECD countries. Neither of the reviews of astronomy
    research published in 1995 and 2001 identified monitoring for asteroid
    detection as a priority for Australian research funds.

    Thank you for taking the time to bring your concerns on this important issue
    to the Prime Minister's attention.

    Yours sincerely

    Catherine Murphy
    Senior Adviser (Science and Innovation)