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The Planetary Society Assists Search for Near Earth Objects

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
02/08/2001

CONTACT:
Mat Kaplan
Email: mat.kaplan@planetary.org
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

The Planetary Society Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants for 2000 have just been awarded to researchers in five nations. Named for one of the pioneers in the field, the grants fund the discovery and tracking of near-Earth objects (NEO's) -- asteroids and comets whose orbits come close to Earth. One of them could impact our planet with devastating results.

The Society has been a leader in advocating and funding the search for NEO's for nearly two decades. With the Shoemaker grants, the Society enables international and amateur observers to make greater contributions to the field. In keeping with that goal, the winners come from five nations: Brazil, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, the United States, and Uruguay. (winners listed below)

About 40% of the estimated total number of one-kilometer or larger objects that cross Earth's orbit have been discovered. Even though various astronomical groups and NASA advisory committees have recommended that the search for NEOs be accelerated, government support for searches and follow-up programs remains modest.

"Is the sky falling?" asks Planetary Society Executive Director, Louis Friedman. "Not today, and hopefully, not tomorrow. But Earth has been hit by objects with catastrophic results as recently as 100 years ago. We need to find and map the orbits of the NEO's in our planet's neighborhood."

A SWARM OF NEAR EARTH OBJECTS

Earth travels through a swarm of near-Earth objects of various sizes and orbits. Scientists have only recently begun to understand the significant contribution NEOs have made to the evolution of Earth -- and to life on our planet. It is now believed that impacts from comets and asteroids have shaped the evolution of all planets in our solar system. The data gathered by NEAR's mission to Eros will greatly increase our understanding of this large swarm of small bodies.

So far, over 1250 near-Earth asteroids have been discovered; more than 460 of these are larger than one kilometer across. Scientists estimate, however, that there are about 1000 near-Earth asteroids larger than one kilometer and 50,000 to 200,000 objects larger than 100 meters in size.

NEO's have collided with Earth in the past, wreaking devastation. The Chicxulub crater off the north coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula was created by an Earth-colliding meteor 65 million years ago, generating a global catastrophe that many scientists believe led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Visit the Planetary Society's website to read field diaries from a 2001 expedition to Belize to search for evidence of the Chicxulub impact.

Eros, the asteroid on which the NEAR spacecraft is scheduled to land next week, is an NEO.

THE GENE SHOEMAKER NEO GRANTS

Gene Shoemaker was a leader in the study of impact structures and an advocate for NEO discovery and tracking programs before his death in 1997. Shoemaker was one of the first scientists to demonstrate that the mile-wide crater in Arizona -- now known as Meteor Crater -- was the result of an impact by an asteroid 50,000 years ago. Prior to Shoemaker's work, Meteor Crater was believed to be the remnant of an extinct volcano.

The Gene Shoemaker NEO Grants are awarded to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers who, with seed funding, could greatly increase their programs' contributions to this critical research.

Funding for the Gene Shoemaker NEO Grant program comes from the Planetary Society's 100,000 members, whose voluntary dues and donations permit targeted support of research and development programs in a number of areas.

An international advisory group recommends candidates to receive the grant awards. The advisory group includes grant coordinator Daniel D. Durda, as well as noted near-Earth object scientists Andrea Carusi, IAS Planetologia; Alan Harris, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Brian Marsden, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; Alain Maury, Observatoire de la Cote d'Azur; Syuichi Nakano, Japan; and Jorge Sahade, Argentina.

The Planetary Society Gene Shoemaker Grant Recipients for 2000

Cristovao JacquesBelo Horizonte
BRAZIL
The Planetary Society is awarding a Gene Shoemaker NEO grant for $7,900 to Cristovao Jacques with the Wykrota Observatory near Belo Horizonte, Brazil. A local astronomy club founded this observatory in 1998. They began with a Meade LX-200 12-inch f/10 telescope for their NEO observations. They now have a 25-inch telescope, a second Meade LX-200 12-inch telescope, and a 4-inch refractor. The two Meade telescopes are dedicated entirely to NEO research. The observatory will use the grant money to purchase two CCD cameras.

Jana Ticha
CZECH REPUBLIC
The Planetary Society is awarding a Gene Shoemaker NEO grant for $6,000 to Jana Ticha with the Klet Observatory in the Czech Republic. The Klet Observatory is a small professional observatory that has been using a 0.57 meter telescope and CCD camera to do CCD astrometry of NEOs. They are now in the process of constructing a 1 meter telescope. The grant money will be used to finish the optical system of the new telescope.

Herman Mikuz
SLOVENIA
The Planetary Society is awarding a Gene Shoemaker NEO grant for $7,300, to Herman Mikuz with the Crni Vrh Observatory to help complete the construction of a new 0.6 meter telescope. The Crni Vrh Observatory is a privately owned observatory in Slovenia that has had a regular observing program since 1985. In 1997, it began an asteroid observation program. The Observatory has been using a 0.36 meter telescope with a CCD camera and filter wheel to conduct their NEO research. They are now planning to upgrade their observing program with a 0.6 meter telescope. The Shoemaker Grant will also help to fund their ambitious project.

David Dixon
UNITED STATES
The Planetary Society is awarding a Gene Shoemaker NEO grant for $7,300 to David Dixon with the Jornada Observatory, an amateur observatory in Las Cruces, New Mexico, United States. With his grant money, Mr. Dixon will upgrade the observatory's current CCD camera to a larger CCD chip, thus increasing the sensitivity of the telescope. In addition, the grant is providing the funds necessary to automate the observatory's dome.

Tabare Gallardo
URUGUAY
The Planetary Society is awarding a Gene Shoemaker NEO grant for $5,000 to Tabare Gallardo with the Los Molinos Astronomical Observatory, located just north of Montevideo, Uruguay. Students from a local university and area amateur astronomers use the observatory's 0.35 meter telescope to scan the southern skies for NEOs. The observatory also has an educational program set up for middle and high school students as well as an outreach program for the general public. The observatory will use the grant money to replace their broken CCD camera and purchase a filter wheel.

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About The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. With the mission to empower the world's citizens to advance space science and exploration, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world. Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded The Planetary Society in 1980. Bill Nye, a longtime member of The Planetary Society's Board, serves as CEO.