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Call for proposals to help save the world

July 27, 2006
Courtesy The Planetary Society
and World Science staff

An organization is offering grants to amateur and professional astronomers worldwide to help detect and understand objects from space that might threaten Earth.

The Barringer impact crater near Flagstaff, Ariz. (Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

The Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society issued a call on Thursday for proposals in a grant program named after comet hunter Gene Shoemaker. 

Errant asteroids, comets and other space objects are an ancient menace for our planet. The small grants are meant to help observers improve their equipment and programs for monitoring these bodies.

“Cataclysmic impacts are a fact of life in our solar system,” said the society’s Bruce Betts. “Asteroids or comets have hit the Earth many times in our past, but now we have the ability to find and track near-Earth objects… to determine which, if any, pose a threat.”

Astronomers have said there may be a 1-in-15,000 chance that the asteroid Apophis will strike Earth in 2036, although future observations should reduce the estimated probability to zero.

The society said in a statement that its Shoemaker grants go “to amateur observers, observers in developing countries, and professional astronomers who, with seed funding, can greatly increase their programs’ contributions” to research in near-Earth objects.

Details are at http://planetary.org/programs/projects/neo_grants/.

Many scientists believe an impact off the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula led to the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Just 11 years ago, Earth watched the bombardment of another planet when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter. Shoemaker, who died in 1997, co-discovered the comet. 

Past Shoemaker grant winners have been highly productive in near-Earth object studies, according to the society. Many have discovered previously unknown asteroids. David Higgins of Canberra, Australia, one of five recipients last year, discovered that an asteroid designated (6084) Bascom is a binary, or has two separate parts. 

The Planetary Society, co-founded by Carl Sagan in 1980, has awarded over $150,000 through 22 previous Shoemaker grants, according to the organization. The money has gone toward “everything from upgrading equipment to purchasing CCD cameras to paying the salaries of graduate students involved in observing programs,” its statement said.

The grants typically range from $3,000 to $10,000, and proposals are due Oct. 18. 

Grant winners are especially critical “for carefully measuring positions of recently discovered” near-Earth objects, the statement added. Once such a body is discovered, “we need to learn whether or not it will hit Earth.”

Astronomers estimate that nearly 70 percent of the one-kilometer or larger objects that cross Earth’s orbit have been discovered, according to the group. Government support for searches remains modest, so programs like that of the Planetary Society remain vital.

Observations that help understand the nature of near-Earth objects are now a growing focus of the grant program, according to the group.

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