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Paracelsus' poison

An Eye on The Sky Goes Out

This weekend the asteroid 2012 DA14 will zoom across our skies, just below the geostationary satellite orbits. While Australians are fortunate in that they have a chance to view this otherworldly rock, there is a deeper Australian connection.

On the 13th of January, a month ago, nearly 10 years since the Mount Stromlo observatory was destroyed in the Canberra fires, fire ripped through the iconic Siding Spring Observatory. Through a combination of good planning in the wake of the Mount Stromlo fire and the heroic work of the New South Wales fireies, none of the telescopes were seriously damaged. However, some of the infrastructure and some of the astronomers homes were destroyed. One of the homes that were destroyed belonged to Rob McNaught.

Comet McNaught in 2007. Ian Musgrave

You may not know the name, but many of you will have seen one of his comets. In January and February of 2007, comet McNaught was a spectacular sight as its tail arched across the south-eastern sky. Rob is the worlds premier comet hunter, and an inspiration to amateur astronomers like myself. One of my prized possessions is a signed poster of his iconic comet.

Losing your home to fire is a devastating experience, one shared by many Australians this fire season (although Rob has reacted with characteristic good humor). However, this personal tragedy has obscured another important loss. Rob McNaught has failed to gain funding for his work at the SSO.

For Rob is not just a comet finder, he also helps protect our planet from death from the skies. He’s the man who searches the southern skies for asteroids that might hit the Earth. For years Rob has toiled to locate these objects before they pose a danger to us. Or was, as Rob has failed to gain funding, since January 2013 there is no dedicated survey of the southern skies for potentially hazardous Near Earth Objects.

Now Rob is just one of a legion of deserving people who failed to be funded, but this particular case has special implications. If most of you have thought of hazardous Near Earth Objects, you may have thought of them in terms of the movies Armageddon or Deep Impact. Large planet killers that we can do nothing about. Or maybe you think that these impactors are so rare that we don’t need to worry about them (after all, the last planet-killer was 65 million years ago).

But planet-killers are not the only worry. The 50 meter Tunguska impactor flattened 2,150 square kilometres of empty Siberian forest, but would have been devastating if it hit a populated area. Even relatively small asteroids, say the size of a house, would cause serious damage if they hit a city. These events are still relatively rare, but at a likelihood of one every 5 years, they need to be taken seriously (luckily most of these 10 metre ones disintegrate in the upper atmosphere and/or impact over water).

Importantly, these small ones can easily sneak up on us, often we have no more than 24 hours notice before they swing by. Rob has been instrumental in finding some of these. We can’t stop them, but 24 hours is enough time to evacuate a potential target area and prevent great loss of life if these sneaky rocks are headed for impact.

But now our eye on the southern sky is going blind.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 as it passes the Earth and Moon. Simulated in Celestia by Ian Musgrave

And it’s not just about loss of life, although that gets the most headlines. Last year a couple of these rocks barrelled through just above where our satellites orbit. As I mentioned above this Saturday the NEO 2012 DA14 will pass through the region of space where our satellites are. An asteroid smashing into a working satellite could potentially disrupt communications or vital earth sensing operations and will generate hazardous debris threatening even more satellites. The chance that a sizable rock can zoom through our satellite band is far and away higher than one hitting us.

Again, while these things can creep up on us, even 24 hours notice could give us time to move some satellites. But with half of the sky now being free from dedicated surveillance, that chance that these rocks can sneak through is much higher.

Previously on the Conversation a series highlighted the free ride Australia gets in space in terms of satellite access, yet again Australia is abrogating it’s responsibilities in space, but this time our lack of responsibility could have a much higher impact.

Some more background on the importance of Rob’s work and the funding situation is here.

PS. If you want to contribute to the Coonabarabran and Siding Spring fire relief funds go here.

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