Bruce BettsSep 21, 2012

Saving the World: Established 1997

It has been 15 years since The Planetary Society started the Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object (NEO) Grant program in honor of planetary geologist and studier of near Earth objects Gene Shoemaker. We are very proud of the program that has made a real difference in tracking, finding, and characterizing asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet.

There have been 33 awardees (38 awards) from 16 countries on 5 continents. We have awarded more than a quarter million dollars, thanks to our members and supporters who have kept this very successful program going. The awards, typically in the $3 K to $10 K range, are given to amateur astronomers and sometimes to professional astronomers for NEO studies. Often, the grants are to upgrade observatories to the next level, e.g., with new cameras or robotic systems.

Our past winners make tens of thousands of follow-up NEO observations each year, key to determining NEO orbits. You can know an asteroid is out there, e.g., from a big professional survey discovery, but it doesn’t do you any good unless you have follow-up tracking to define the orbit and tell you if the asteroid is targeting Earth. Shoemaker NEO grant winners also make many discoveries, e.g., co-discovery of Apophis, and discovery of the naked eye Comet Lulin a couple years ago, and recently, the discovery of 2012 DA14, a roughly 50 meter asteroid that will pass Earth in early 2013 at about the distance of our geostationary communication satellites.

You can learn about all our past winners here, but as examples of the program, here I’d like to highlight the four people who have won more than one Shoemaker NEO grant over the years, including some recent highlights.

Shoemaker NEO Grant Repeat Winners
Shoemaker NEO Grant Repeat Winners As of 2012, these 4 individuals and their observatories have won more than one Planetary Society Shoemaker NEO grant: (left to right) Bob Holmes (USA), Herman Mikuz (Slovenia), Russ Durkee (USA), and David Higgins (Australia).

HERMAN MIKUŽ operates the Črni Vrh Observatory (106) in Slovenia. A 2000 Shoemaker grant helped found the program. Today, his team’s fully robotic, over-the-Internet program has a 60-centimeter telescope and a record of more than 700 asteroid and comet discoveries; they are the second most prolific amateur NEO survey in the world. A 2010 grant helped them to overcome sensitivity limitations by using an Apogee Alta U9000 CCD camera with deep cooling to 60°C below ambient temperature.

ROBERT E. HOLMES, JR. is president of the Astronomical Research Institute (ARI) (H21) in Ashmore, Illinois, USA. In 2007 our grant helped Holmes purchase CCD cameras that captured over 84,000 images of near-Earth objects in the sky. Our grant in 2010 extended ARI’s already very productive research in NEO observations to physical studies of NEOs by funding the purchase of 4 filters in BVRI (blue, visible, red, infrared) and a clear filter for focusing, for use on 0.76- and 1.3- meter telescopes. In 2011, ARI made 10,778 targeted observations of NEOs – more than any other observatory in the world – with the help of another grant to purchase an additional CCD camera, making their observing site among the very few that can reach beyond magnitude 22.0 for faint NEO observations. In total, the two cameras have made more than 50,000 NEO observations, second in the world only to the professional LINEAR program.

DAVID HIGGINS operates the Hunters Hill Observatory (E14) in Canberra, Australia. His first grant, in 2005, allowed the purchase of a second-hand SBIG ST-8 CCD camera that automated Hunters Hill and provided brightness observations of more than 400 targets; they uncovered the binary nature of nearly two-dozen asteroids. Our 2010 grant enabled a wider field of view and significantly faster image downloads through a new SBIG STL-1001E C2 upgrade that came just as the previous camera was failing.

RUSSELL I. DURKEE runs the Shed of Science Observatory (H39) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. He got his first grant in 2009 and his second in 2010. The grants helped him automate his observatory and purchase an SBIG ST10XE camera and filter wheel for a second telescope. He uses the advanced equipment to measure asteroid light curves (a graph of an asteroid’s brightness over time to determine rotation rates and uncover binaries).

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They are watching the skies for you!

Help award this year’s deserving observers around the world. Each Shoemaker NEO Grant provides the seed funding that can greatly increase the contributions to Near Earth Object (or NEO) research of amateur observers, skilled observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers.

Our researchers do absolutely critical work: defining NEO orbits to tell whether they are on a collision course with Earth and continuing to discover new NEOs.

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