October 24, 2002

C.U. Researcher Urges Asteroid Monitoring

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Prof. Joseph Burns, astronomy and the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering, recently spoke in front of a House of Representatives space subcommittee, urging them to spend an estimated $150 million on constructing a telescope capable of detecting a significant number of earth-threatening asteroids and comets.

It is “really a matter of finding out if anything is going to hit us in the next 100 years,” Burns said.

The suggestion had originally been presented along with many others to Congress in July as part of the report by the government-commissioned Solar System Exploration Decadal Survey, on which Burns was a panel member.

This proposal sparked particular interest due to a recent asteroid threat.

“There were three separate incidences over the past few months where small asteroids came within a small distance of the moon in relation to the Earth and for a while people thought they might be dangerous,” Burns said.

Rep. Michael P. Rohrbacker (R-MO) invited Burns, along with four other experts, to speak to the space subcommittee specifically about the telescope.

This new telescope, called the Large-Aperture Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), would take approximately three to four years to build. Once completed, it would continually take pictures of the entire sky, covering it in its entirety in ten days and would detect fainter and smaller objects than telescopes presently can see.

“This telescope would be six and a half meters; at present, this work is done by telescopes one-fifth as big,” Burns said.

The telescope would simply serve to detect possible threats and help to avoid a collision between the Earth and an asteroid.

Then the object’s course could be diverted.

“The first step in protection is finding out where your enemies are at. Then it would be a matter of doing something about it,” Burns said.

Using rockets, nuclear bombs, or by simply heating it, “you could slow down or speed up an asteroid just a little bit [and] it might miss the earth,” Burns said.

The survey report, “New Frontiers in the Solar System,” included that “Information especially relevant to hazard mitigation includes knowledge of the internal structures of near-Earth asteroids.”

Such arguments appeared to have been persuasive.

“My impression was that Congress was very interested in the telescope and will try to put it into the budget,” Burns said.

A problem with the project, however, is deciding who will fund it. Burns and his colleagues recommended that NASA and the National Science Foundation jointly divide the cost, but NASA argued that they don’t fund on-ground projects.

Burns expects to hear from the congressional subcommittee shortly regarding further questions about the LSST.

Archived article by Amy Green