Space scouts ineffective

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (KRT)

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Monday, March 1:

Feel that breeze? Something just passed by. Good thing, too.

This something was an asteroid.

And scientists were so worried about it in mid-January that they came within nine hours of calling President Bush.

The chance that a big asteroid will strike within any person’s lifetime is exceedingly small.

But we ought to have something better in place than the current loose confederation of scientists that is the main lookout.

About Jan. 13, that informal system – which relies on scientists’ brains and cooperation, rather than an alert algorithm – didn’t work too well.

Thanks to an asteroid named 2004 AS1, that system is being reviewed.

All sorts of astronomers are looking constantly at the sky.

When someone discovers a new asteroid, he tells an outfit called the Minor Planet Center, located in Cambridge, Mass.

The MPC posts the discovery on the Internet and asks the scientific community to send in more observations.

Some space watchers discovered 2004 AS1. Other scientists took other measurements.

Seemed 2004 AS1 was about 30 meters wide – the size of a yacht. It was traveling – whoa – traveling in an interesting trajectory.

Steven Chesley of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent an E-mail warning that the asteroid had a 1-in-4 chance of striking the Northern Hemisphere in a couple of days.

Skies were cloudy, and it was hard to get a fix.

All the speculation was based on only four observations.

No one wanted to make a wrong call, inspiring needless panic among millions.

If a yacht-size asteroid hit the atmosphere broadside, though, it would produce a devastating mid-air explosion. Thousands could die.

For nine sweaty hours, astronomers Clark Chapman and David Morrison, chair of the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Near Earth Objects, considered getting on the line to the president.

In the end, some amateur sky jockey got an unclouded shot of 2004 AS1, and, whew, false alarm, don’t call.

Little 2004 AS1 missed us by 7 million miles. Good thing. Turned out it was more like 500 meters wide.

So we ducked one high, tight fastball. But we should – and can – do better next time.

We need a tighter system, probably an international system, of level-headed scientists who will place the call only when they see no other choice.

The story here was not of an asteroid that almost brought disaster, but of a phone call that almost did.