Planetary Society Awards NEO Trackers

For Immediate Release
April 27, 2009

Mat Kaplan
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

The space around Earth will be monitored a little more closely for potentially threatening near-Earth objects (NEOs), like asteroids and comets, with the awarding of three new Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grants by The Planetary Society. Bruce Betts, Director of Projects, today announced the winners in Granada, Spain at the 1st IAA Planetary Defense Conference: Protecting Earth from Asteroids.

The grant recipients are Russell Durkee of Minnesota, Robert E. Holmes, Jr of Illinois, and Gary Hug of Kansas. The 2009 recipients, chosen from 12 proposals submitted by researches in 8 countries, are all established observers, with long histories of searching for and tracking NEOs, some of which could one day pose a threat to our planet.

Holmes is The Planetary Society’s first repeat Shoemaker grant recipient, having won an award previously in 2007.

"In the last couple of months, we’ve had two timely reminders of why funding NEO research is vital," said Betts. "The near-Earth object 2009 DD45 swooped within 40,000 miles of Earth on March 2, and a mere two weeks later, another space rock – 2009 FH – passed within 49,000 miles of our planet’s surface.”

The Planetary Society awards Shoemaker Grants to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers who, with seed funding, can greatly increase their programs' contributions to NEO research.

Three past recipients of the grants helped discover and track of 2009 FH, including 2002 recipient Richard Kowalski of the Catalina Sky Survey, and 2007 recipients Holmes (one of this year’s winners), the Astronomical Research Institute in Illinois, and James McGaha, the Sabino Canyon Observatory near Tucson, Arizona. Shoemaker NEO 2007 winner Jean-Claude Pelle, based at the closest approach point on Earth (Tahiti) for 2009 DD45, made many observations as it zoomed past.

Recent recipients have discovered and followed up on many other objects as well, including February’s “green comet” – Comet Lulin – discovered by 2007 winner Quanzhi Ye, working in mainland China in collaboration with Lulin observatory in Taiwan.

Observing and cataloging NEOs is the first step in Planetary Defense – protecting the Earth from a potentially catastrophic impact. Recent discoveries have suggested that smaller impacts that cause regional damage, which occur more frequently, are as great of a concern as the far less frequent large impacts with global consequences.

Both Betts and The Planetary Society’s Executive Director, Louis Friedman, participated in planetary defense conferences this month, where researchers are examining both the technical and policy issues concerned with protecting the Earth.

This year's Shoemaker grant recipients will use their grants to help fund the following projects:

Russell Durkee
Shed of Science Observatory

Durkee is a well-established observer of asteroid lightcurves. Durkee proposed to automate the Shed of Science Observatory to allow him to run more nights and triple the productivity of his NEO photometry program. His award will be used to purchase a computer, control board and software, and a cloud sensor necessary to fully automate the operations of the observatory.

Robert Holmes
Holmes will purchase a new CCD camera to go on one of several telescopes (0.6-m, 0.8-m, and 1.2-m) to be commissioned in 2009. His observing site is one of only a few that can reach to the very faint magnitudes necessary to do follow-up astrometric observations of fainter detections that will come from Pan-STARRS and other deeper NEO surveys in progress.

Gary Hug
Sandlot Observatory

Hug will purchase a new STL1001 CCD Camera from SBIG for a 22-inch telescope that is soon to come on line. Hug has discovered hundreds of main-belt asteroids, a NEO, three Trojan asteroids, and was co-discoverer of a comet. He plans to conduct recovery work of semi-lost NEAs, plus follow-up of new discoveries.

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. Tomorrow, April 28, is Shoemaker’s birthday.

Nearly 70% of the estimated total number of one-kilometer or larger objects that cross Earth's orbit have been discovered. The Shoemaker Grants fill a vital niche, providing funding to a field of research that receives only modest government support. 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. Planetary Society-funded observers, 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 Science Institute; Petr Pravec, Ondrejov Observatory, Czech Republic; Tim Spahr, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics-Minor Planet Center; and Duncan Steel, QinetiQ, Canberra, Australia.

NEOs have collided with Earth throughout the planet's history, sometimes with cataclysmic results. As recently as 1908 an explosion over Siberia leveled and burned hundreds of square miles of forest.

About The Planetary Society

With a global community of more than 2 million space enthusiasts, The Planetary Society is the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy organization. Founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman and today led by CEO Bill Nye, we empower the public to take a meaningful role in advancing space exploration through advocacy, education outreach, scientific innovation, and global collaboration. Together with our members and supporters, we’re on a mission to explore worlds, find life off Earth, and protect our planet from dangerous asteroids. To learn more, visit