Since its founding, The Planetary Society has actively supported a number of efforts to discover and characterize the population of near-Earth objects (NEOs) that both threaten our planet and hold great promise for future exploration. In 1997, the Society began the Gene Shoemaker NEO grant program to help in the global effort to meet the Spaceguard goal of discovering 90% of the 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) and larger NEOs that can impact our planet. The program honors pioneering planetary geologist Gene Shoemaker, who did so much to help us understand the process of impact cratering on the planets and the nature of the NEO population, and seeks to assist amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and under-funded professional observers in contributing to vital NEO research.
Gene Shoemaker in Saudi Arabia
Gene Shoemaker examines the ejecta blanket at the Wabar meteorite impact site in the Ar Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) of Saudi Arabia.
Over the 20 year history of program, about $323,000 has been granted in 49 awards (to 39 awardees) in 16 countries on 5 continents. Grant recipients have played critical roles in recovering small asteroids newly discovered by the major asteroid survey programs by providing the crucial follow-up observations to determine precise orbits for these objects. They have also provided discoveries and physical characterization of NEOs. Proposers are encouraged to read about past winners, including project updates on their work.
Through these observations and others supported by Planetary Society members and their donations, the Society is playing an active role in helping to ‘retire’ some of the risk of impact from NEOs and to reveal the properties of these interesting and valuable targets for future exploration.
We have now begun the selection process for the next round of Shoemaker NEO grants. When originally conceived, the program focused on helping to provide larger telescopes and more sensitive CCD cameras to observers to help broaden the survey coverage of the sky to increase the rate of NEO discovery. As we look at the observing programs that are now contributing the most, we can rejoice that we have made the awards wisely, and the field as a whole has been benefiting as a result.
Over time, however, the half dozen or so large professional NEO survey programs, particularly the Catalina Sky Survey, run from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Pan-STARRS led by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, and the LINEAR (Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research) program run by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories, have made great leaps forward in automated searches of wide swaths of the sky for very faint asteroids, and the NEOWISE infrared space telescope has been successful in NEO discovery and characterization. Although amateur observers still contribute many valuable NEO observations, their most significant contributions have evolved away from NEO discovery and astrometric follow-up (observations to help refine the orbits of new NEOs discovered by the professional surveys) to valuable physical studies that help better characterize the physical nature of these planetary projectiles, and to a lesser extent, tracking of impacts on other worlds. This round of Shoemaker grants will focus on advancing amateur contributions in these latter areas (particularly physical studies and to a lesser extent astrometric follow-up).
The need now is for larger telescopes (apertures larger than about 24 inches, or 60 centimeters), or effectively larger telescopes at superior observing sites, and for automation of observing facilities and equipment. Large telescopes at sites with dark, clear skies allow for observation of NEOs fainter than magnitude V = 20.5-21 (where the professional surveys are discovering many new small objects) and automation of observing facilities allows observers with ‘day jobs’ to utilize their facilities more nearly full time and much more efficiently. Priority will be given to applicants seeking to improve facilities with large telescopes and/or for automation. Priority will also be given to programs that can leverage Shoemaker grant funds through matching contributions from other sources.
Applications for the current round of Shoemaker NEO grants are due July 31, 2017. Grant sizes are typically $3,000 to $10,000. The Planetary Society welcomes applications from amateur and under-funded professional observers anywhere in the world. All applications will be reviewed by an international panel of NEO experts.