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Bruce BettsMay 9, 2011

Bruce Betts reports from the Planetary Defense Conference in Romania

It's time once again to hang out with a bunch of professionals in a foreign land and talk about saving the world. I am at the International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense Conference in Bucharest, Romania. We are discussing all aspects of the asteroid impact threat, including observations and orbit determination, impact physics, spacecraft missions to asteroids, mitigation/deflection techniques, and even disaster management and the political aspects of the near-Earth object (NEO) threat. The conference this year is set in the Romanian parliament building, one of the largest buildings in the world. Most science conferences in the world definitely are not held in a room with a 10-meter chandelier on a domed ceiling, but this one is.

The meeting began with introductions and welcomes from conference organizers, a member of Romania's parliament, and a UN representative. The first day's presentations included history and current status of NEO programs and some of the main NEO survey telescopes (e.g., Catalina Sky Survey, Pan-STARRs), as well as presentations about ground-based and space-based telescopes that are hoped for in the future.

In an unusual, but perhaps not unlikely, coincidence, I sat down at a lunch table and realized I was sitting with the answer to the Planetary Radio trivia question I just asked this week: the first Romanian in space. (No, I won't give away the answer here.) Not only did I meet him at lunch, they had a ceremony in the afternoon where they formally issued a postage stamp in honor of the 30th anniversary of his flight. Such a moment seemed inappropriate to tell him he was my "trivia" answer, not that that doesn't put him in great company.

Interesting as usual was the regular update talk from Alan Harris on his estimates of the NEO population. He says about 75% of one-kilometer-diameter asteroids have been discovered and 85% of those larger than a kilometer, a total of 914 objects as of May 1, 2011. About 25% of Apophis-size (about 300 meter) asteroids have been found, and smaller percentages of smaller-sized ones.

Don Yeomans from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory presented new analyses confirming that for every hundred asteroid impacts on Earth there's likely to be only one comet hit. Random Space Fact from his talk: Since the year 1900, 2460 NEOs made 3901 close approaches to within 0.05 AU (AU = Sun- Earth distance) of Earth. Only four comets came that close during the same time frame.

Lindley Johnson from NASA Headquarters gave an update on NASA's various programs. It was good to hear about continued funding for Arecibo NEO radar observations, something the Planetary Society and our members have advocated strongly for. In the 2012 budget request for NASA there is a request for a fivefold increase in the NEO budget from 4 million dollars per year to 20 million per year. Hopefully, that will go through, since it is a small price to pay to try to prevent the only preventable natural disaster.

Paul Abell from Johnson Space Center, as well as others reiterated the conclusions from the last conference: a space-based telescope dedicated to NEO studies and preferably placed inwards of Earth's orbit would greatly increase the efficiency of NEO detection. He also focused on finding NEOs that could be targets for human missions next decade since very, very few meet the criteria now.

I'll report more about the conference later this week, including telling you about new results presented at the conference, and telling you about my meetings with people relevant to Planetary Society projects. You can find more info on the conference, including abstracts for all of the oral talks at:

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Read more: Planetary Society Projects, conference report

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
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