"In a cosmic game of pinball with asteroids and comets, we don’t want Earth to get hit," said Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts. "At least not by anything big enough to cause damage."
To find and track near-Earth objects (NEOs) to determine which -- if any -- pose a threat to our world, The Planetary Society has issued a call for new proposals for its Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants. Shoemaker grants are awarded to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers who, with seed funding, can greatly increase their programs' contributions to NEO research.
Every year the news media carries reports about another asteroid or two whizzing past Earth in a close flyby, astronomically speaking. NEOs have collided violently with Earth throughout the planet's history. Many scientists believe an impact off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. And just a century ago, an explosion over Siberia leveled vast swaths of forest. A few hours earlier or later during Earth’s orbit, and a city might have been in the path of that object, resulting in a catastrophic loss of human life.
"Planetary defense -- as well as a heightened awareness about Earth’s orbital environment -- is an increasingly important topic," noted Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society.
In partnership with the Secure World Foundation, The Planetary Society recently published a special issue of its members magazine, The Planetary Report, on this topic. The Society has also instituted a program of research in planetary defense, and Betts participated in a 2010 UN Action Team meeting about this subject as well.
Since The Planetary Society's inception in 1980, the organization has donated well over three hundred thousand dollars to asteroid research, two thirds of which was awarded through 32 Shoemaker NEO grants to 31 observers around the world, including Robert E. Holmes, Jr. of the Astronomical Research Institute in Illinois, who has won grants twice in a row.
Proposal submissions for the latest round of Shoemaker Grants are due by June 10, 2010.
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.
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.
A few recent achievements by Shoemaker Grant winners include Robert Holmes making the largest number of targeted follow-up observations of faint NEOs (fainter than unfiltered magnitude 22.0) in the world in 2009; the discovery of four new NEOs by Herman Mikuz and his team at the Crni Vrh Observatory in Slovenia; and Shoemaker Grant winners Brian Warner, Don Pray, and Russell Durkee collaborating to contribute to the understanding of binary NEOs.
While nearly 90% of the estimated total number of one-kilometer or larger objects that cross Earth's orbit have been discovered, many smaller objects that could cause significant damage still need to be found and adequately tracked.
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.
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.