17 May 1998

Avoiding Asteroid "False Alarms"

Remember the brouhaha surrounding the news of a possible asteroid collision with the Earth in 2028? Such hysteria could become a frequent event, warn members of a National Research Council (NRC) committee in the United States, unless protocols are developed for reporting information about approaching asteroids. That's because new instruments and telescope facilities are arriving on the scene that will lead to a flood of "false alarms".

Coinciding nicely with the release of Deep Impact, a movie about an asteroid the size of New York that only Robert Duvall can stop from smashing into the Earth, the report predicts a dramatic increase in the number of asteroid discoveries over the coming decade. Of the thousands that will be identified, a significant number will appear - initially - to be making a beeline for the earth. The resulting panic period could last days, weeks, or even years, until enough data has been collected to determine accurate orbits. Policies for handling the dissemination of information during the first flushes of discovery will be needed, says the report, to ensure sensitive and sensible communication with the public.

As a first step, astronomers funded by NASA have agreed to a 72 hour "cooling off" period so that initial calculations can be checked and refined. International consensus is important for such a scheme to be effective and the NRC hopes to bring together astronomers from around the world later in the year with organizations such as the International Astronomical Union playing a key role.