Friday, October 9, 2015

Media "crying wolf" about Asteroid (86666) 2000 FL10 !

No, this is not a "surprise", has not been "just announced", is not a "near miss", is not a "shock". [Update 14th Oct: 2015 TB145 might have been worthy of that title but not 86666] However it is interesting due to its size ...... so lets have a sensible discussion.

As someone who is corporately qualified in Management of Risk (MoR) Framework, I fully appreciate the risk assessment process and freely admit to being constantly fascinated by applying this to my asteroid work. NASA and the other Space Agencies do this very well also. Last year at the Planetary Defence conference in Frascati, Italy, the key stakeholders in Asteroid research gathered for a conference that role-played an impending impact event, which everyone hopes will never be required. So there is a good deal of risk management going on.

So lets be controversial for a minute. Catastrophic climate change is a basket of risk that MUST include ALL the risks, not just the ones designed to shut down the coal industry. If a "continent cracking" asteroid were to hit earth, there would be alot of cranky people retrospectively assessing whether we spent too much on the wrong risk. In 2011, a 10m tsunami washed away a good portion of the coast of Japan triggered by one of the other big risks, catastrophic tectonic plate shift. An asteroid strike would create much more widespread damage and much larger tsunamis.

So how do asteroids fit in this risk picture and how did this all start?

In 1989, the asteroid now known as Ascelpius (4581) 1989 FC, occupied the same point in space that earth occupied 6 hours hours later, astronomers found this out 3 days AFTER it had passed. That was a close call! At 300m diameter it would have created enormous damage if it had hit. That was a surprise, that was a shock and immediate action followed. NASA/JPL began a 10 year mission to find 90% of all known asteroids by the end of the next decade. Whilst an awarness of the asteroid belt existed, after all (29075) 1950 DA was already a known risk and still occupies the number 1 position on the Sentry Risk table to this day. One of the major discoveries which was also unexpected was the amount of asteroids found in the range of 100m to 1Klm diameter. The Sentry Risk Table is now maintained by the NASA/JPL and tracks potential collisions there are 575 entries in the table.

Today there are 693000 known asteroids, 13000 of which are Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), 17 of which have been discovered this month. So the risk is there, and after a decade of research, the scale of the risk had been under estimated.

Potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) are asteroids that come within 0.05 AU, or 5% of the earth-sun distance, and are greater than 100m diameter. The theoritcal "simple atmospheric physics" suggests that anything less than 80m diameter should "mostly" burn up in the atmosphere. However after the widespread damage caused by the Chelyabinsk Meteorite in Russia in 2013, which is thought to have been about 15-20m diameter, this threshold is now being re-assessed.

Its a fine line between education about risk, and overstating the risk of a particular event. Whilst each close pass can be used to build understanding of the risk and rally resources towards the efforts required to quantify the risk - its difficult.

Enter the modern media - recently distrupted by internet technology which fundamentally changed their engagement models and revenue streams. Often the journalists put up a sensational headline to get the click through to an article, which once you get past the headline, isn't quite so bad. This week we have seen a combination of these issues around Asteroid (86666) 2000 FL10. Now we also have the "Doomsday Preppers" and end of the world and conspiracy bloggers weighing in, with their own exaggerations and at times outright mis-information. What drives their interest in all this?

Escatological bible students have long been aware of a passage in Revelation of St John's vision of a "star falling from heaven and consuming a 1/3 of the land, sea and rivers", this star is given the name Wormwood. Learmonth Observatory has a Project Wormwood which is loosely derived from that text. However the leap to "number of his name (666)" later in Revelation and tying it to this asteroid, its beyond ridiculous, even for bible scholars. It is interesting however, that culturally, this is what drives the interest of "end-timers" and "doomsday preppers" in asteroids that come near the earth.

If only they could use their internet skills to actually help and track the asteroids through one of the many citizen science projects.

So that brings us back to "crying wolf". Asoep's famous fable (at least in western culture) about the shepherd boy who "cried wolf" when he got bored and wanted to see some action. The town's people would come running out to come and investigate and found no risk to the flock. After a while people began to ignore him and the inevitable happened, a real wolf showed up.

The questions the media should be asking:
1) what is being done to further research the apparent "cluster" of large asteroids coming inside the earth-moon distance [1 Lunar distance (LD)] between 2026 and 2030
2) What is being done to research the number of >300m near earth asteroids listed as "Lost"

There are many good things happening in asteroid research. Professional scientists are investing in new surveys, Panstarrs Survey is now fully operational. Amateur Astronomers regularly collaborate with professionals and do amazing follow up work. The gap in the southern sky above 30 degrees south declination left by the closure of the E12 Survey at Siding Spring has been picked up by, Panstarrs reaching further south, a repurposing of the WISE Space telescope, the Sonear Observatory in Brazil, the new ISON-South telescope, and the amateur astronomers who use's Siding Spring Observatory telescopes.

So let's not cry wolf, let's educate and understand, let's progress our knowledge and support the effort to protect our home by getting positively involved. I am certain there will be more than one "end of the world" party on Friday April 13th 2029 when asteroid Apophis (2nd on the Sentry Risk Table) misses Earth by about 200 thousand kilometers and streaks across the sky as a naked eye object. You will be able to pull out the deck chair and pop the bubbly, safe in the knowledge that scientists that you funded have done the math, and you'll be able to relax and enjoy the spectacle.

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