The Planetary Society again advanced the search for comets and asteroids that might someday strike our planet by awarding Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants (NEO) to seven researchers from five countries. Last night the winners were announced at the Planetary Defense Conference, a gathering of professional NEO researchers from around the world, being held in Washington, D.C.
The 2007 recipients are Robert E. Holmes, Jr, Donald P. Pray, and Brian D. Warner of the USA; Jean-Claude Pelle of French Polynesia; Quanzhi Ye of China; Eric J. Allen of Canada; and Giovanni Sostero of Italy. The Society received 23 proposals from 11 countries.
"For billions of years, impacts have helped shape and reshape our solar system," said Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts. "Only now are we able to track asteroids and comets to determine if any pose a threat to our world."
The Planetary Society awards Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers who, with seed funding, can greatly increase their programs' contributions to NEO research.
This year's recipients will use their money in a variety of ways:
Holmes of the Astronomical Research Institute in Illinois and Pelle in Tahiti will both purchase new CCD cameras. Warner at the Palmer Divide Observatory in Colorado will buy a new telescope. Pray, who operates the Carbuncle Hill Observatory in Rhode Island, will upgrade and put back into service an older telescope. Ye from China, an 18-year-old college student, will buy a laptop and software to help operate an automated telescope for the Lulin Sky Survey. Allen from Quebec will automate the dome of a telescope. Sostero, on behalf of the Associazione Friulana di Astronomia e Meteorologia in Italy, will purchase a new computer and other equipment.
In all cases, the grants will greatly increase their abilities to observe NEOs.
NEOs have collided with Earth throughout the planet's history, sometimes with cataclysmic results. An impact off the north coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago probably doomed the dinosaurs, while an explosion over Siberia a mere century ago leveled and burned hundreds of square miles of forest. And in 2029, the asteroid Apophis, a few hundred meters in diameter, will come closer to Earth than our geosynchronous communications satellites and has a slim, but real, possibility of colliding with our planet on a return pass 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.
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. Grant winners are especially critical 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. Shoemaker NEO grant winners, past and present, operate many of the most successful asteroid follow-up observatories in the world.
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 Planetary Society NEO Grant Coordinator Daniel D. Durda of the Southwest Research Institute; Alan Harris, Space Sciences Institute; Petr Pravec, Ondrejov Observatory, Czech Republic; Tim Spahr, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics-Minor Planet Center; and Duncan Steel, Australian Centre for Astrobiology and Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation.