Cataclysmic impacts are a fact of life in our solar system," said Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts. "Asteroids or comets have hit the Earth many times in our past, but now we have the ability to find and track near-Earth objects (NEOs) to determine which - if any - pose a threat."
To that end, The Planetary Society has issued a new call for proposals for Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants, which the organization awards to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers who, with seed funding, can greatly increase their programs' contributions to NEO research. See grant details.
NEOs have collided with Earth throughout the planet's history, violently releasing enormous amounts of energy. Many scientists believe an impact off the north coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. However, the threat posed by objects hurtling through our solar system is not a relic of the past. Just 11 years ago, Earth watched the bombardment of another planet when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted Jupiter. More recently - a mere month ago - a several-hundred-meter asteroid passed by Earth at about the distance of the Moon. And in 2029, the asteroid Apophis, a few hundred meters in diameter, will come closer to Earth than our geosynchronous communications satellites and has the possibility of colliding with our planet when it returns in 2036.
The Planetary Society named its NEO Grant program for Gene Shoemaker after his death in 1997. Shoemaker was a highly respected leader in the study of impact structures and an advocate for NEO discovery and tracking programs.
Past Shoemaker grant winners have been highly productive in NEO studies. A 2005 grant recipient, David Higgins, discovered that asteroid (6084) Bascom is a binary. In an interesting coincidence Bascom was originally discovered by Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker in 1985. "Small world!" remarked Higgins, who was one of five researchers to receive a Shoemaker grant from the Society in 2005.
Higgins, of Canberra, Australia, used his funding to purchase a SBIG CCD camera with a large pixel array and extremely short readout time -- the same camera with which he determined that Bascom was, in fact, a binary asteroid.
Grant recipients have also discovered many previously unknown asteroids, including John Broughton's April 11, 2004 discovery of 2004 GA1. This is possibly the first amateur discovery of a potentially hazardous NEO exceeding one kilometer in diameter. See updates on the accomplishments of past winners.
Since The Planetary Society's inception in 1980, the organization has donated well over a quarter million dollars to asteroid research, about half of which was awarded through 22 Shoemaker NEO grants to observers around the world. Society-funded programs have yielded several asteroid discoveries. Shoemaker NEO grant money has been used for everything from upgrading equipment to purchasing CCD cameras to paying the salaries of graduate students involved in observing programs.
Grant winners are especially critical in the NEO world for carefully measuring positions of recently discovered NEOs. Once we know a NEO is out there, we need to learn whether or not it will hit Earth.
For example, Peter Birtwhistle of Berkshire, England used his 2005 grant to upgrade equipment at Great Shefford Observatory, allowing much faster image downloads. Since then, he has published NEO follow-up observations in more than 100 Daily Orbit Updates and has tracked a number of fast-moving NEOs, including three objects that were closer to Earth than the Moon.
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.
Nearly 70% of the estimated total number of one-kilometer or larger objects that cross Earth's orbit have been discovered. Government support for searches and follow-up programs remains modest so programs like The Planetary Society's Gene Shoemaker NEO grants fill a vital niche.
As our understanding of the impact threat has grown, we have begun to consider in more detail how we might prevent the impact of a threatening object. Advance planning requires that we better understand the properties of these objects as miniature worlds, so observations that help characterize NEOs are now a growing focus of the grant program.
An international advisory group recommends candidates to receive the grant awards. The advisory group includes Planetary Society NEO Grant Coordinator Daniel D. Durda of the Southwest Research Institute.