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The Planetary Society Funds Sky Watchers


Mat Kaplan
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

The Planetary Society has awarded five Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants for 2002 to researchers in three nations. Named for one of the pioneers in the field, the grants fund discovery, tracking, and follow-up observations of near-Earth objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets whose orbits come close to Earth.

Grant winners include John Broughton of Australia; Matt Dawson of Luxembourg; and Richard Kowalski, James McGaha, and Roy Tucker of the United States.

For nearly two decades, The Planetary Society has been a leader in advocating and funding the search for NEOs. The Society's Shoemaker Grants enable international and amateur observers to make greater contributions to the field.

Only about 55-60% 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.

"Although government funding of search programs has increased in recent years, in part due to Planetary Society efforts, serious gaps in funding for NEO research still exist," says Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts. "Gaps are particularly severe in the area of dedicated follow up observations that actually determine NEO orbits."

"It doesn't help knowing a NEO is out there if you don't know whether it has Earth's name on it," Betts added. "This is an area where our grant program, combined with dedicated amateurs and professionals, can make a real difference."


Earth travels through a swarm of near-Earth objects of various sizes and orbits. Scientists only recently have 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.

"We need to study the NEOs more to determine not only their precise orbits but also their composition - what these objects are made of," said Shoemaker NEO Grant coordinator Daniel D. Durda.

So far, over 1940 near-Earth asteroids have been discovered; more than 600 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 300,000 objects larger than 100 meters in size. One of them could impact our planet with devastating results.

NEOs 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 asteroid 65 million years ago, generating a global catastrophe that many scientists believe led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and over 75% of other animal and plant species.

NEOs are scientifically valuable objects that may one day serve as intriguing targets for human missions when we expand human exploration beyond the Earth-Moon system.


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.

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 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 scientist and grant coordinator Durda, as well as noted near-Earth object scientists 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.


James McGaha, from Tucson, Arizona, was awarded $10,000 to automate the operations of his 0.62-meter telescope. McGaha is among the most prolific of amateur observers who follow up NEO discoveries made by the major survey programs. His Grasslands Observatory is located at a dark site at an altitude of 5,000 feet, but its remote location 55 miles from Tucson does not allow for maximum fulfillment of its potential. The Shoemaker NEO grant awarded to McGaha will be used to install a computerized control system to allow automated operations at Grasslands Observatory and considerably improve the efficiency of the NEO observations he will make.

John Broughton, from Reedy Creek, Queensland, Australia, has been awarded $8,140 for the purchase of an Apogee AP6Ep CCD camera to be used on a new computer-controlled 0.46-meter telescope. Over the last four years, Broughton has recorded 25,000 images and obtained over 6,000 minor planet position measurements, discovering 370 new objects in the process. The new CCD camera purchased with Shoemaker NEO Grant funding will immediately be put to work making follow up position reports on fast moving NEOs and NEOs that are not observable by northern hemisphere observers.

Matt Dawson of Luxembourg has been awarded $6,300 to purchase an Apogee AP47 CCD camera that will be used to follow up faint NEO discoveries. Dawson, a dedicated amateur NEO observer, represents the Roeser Observatory in Luxembourg and the Cote de Meuse Observatory in France, where 0.85-meter and 0.5-meter telescopes are used for NEO recovery and follow up observations. The two telescopes recently have been upgraded from manual to computerized capability. A back-illuminated CCD camera will complete the upgrades, allowing Dawson to reach magnitudes as faint as V=21 with the larger telescope and V=19.5 with the smaller one.

Roy Tucker of Tucson, Arizona is an energetic promoter of amateur participation in NEO search and follow up. Tucker was awarded $2,950 to help enlist the support of other local amateur astronomers in reduction and analysis of the vast quantities of image data produced by his prototype telescope/camera systems. The three telescope systems produce more data that any one person can fully examine and measure, so Tucker will purchase additional software packages, a CD duplicator, and 1,200 blank CD-R disks a year to archive and distribute the data among fellow local amateur observers. Tucker will also purchase and share with other local observers a CO2 snow cleaning system to efficiently and safely clean the optics of the heavily used telescope systems.

Richard Kowalski of Zephyrhills, Florida is the owner, founder, and maintainer of the Minor Planet Mailing List (MPML), which over the last four years has become a vital link between observers and other researchers worldwide involved in NEOs and other minor planets. It costs Kowalski approximately $300 each year to run and maintain the MPML and its associated web pages. The Planetary Society will award Kowalski $300 per year for the next 3 years to fund MPML operations.

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