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Saturday, June 6, 1998 Published at 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK


Asteroids ahead - don't panic

Films like Deep Impact have raised pubic awareness of asteroids

Leading scientists are looking at ways of warning about asteroids nearing Earth without causing mass panic.

Geology professor Harry Macsween tells the World Service new discoveries should be reviewed before they are made public
The conference follows the false alarm in March about an asteroid coming dangerously close to Earth in the next century.

It also coincides with increased public awareness of the potential threat from asteroids with the release of two Hollywood blockbusters about cosmic collisions.

[ image: Report of an asteroid nearing Earth was headline news]
Report of an asteroid nearing Earth was headline news
Richard P Binzel, a planetary science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: "Collisions with the Earth is a topic that is so prone to sensationalism that we must be extremely careful about how we communicate new discoveries.

"It took the (March) event to wake us up."

A report that asteroid XF11 was headed to within 30,000 miles of the Earth's centre - and could hit - in October 2028 was headline news in March.

The report from the International Astronomical Union was quickly debunked by astronomers at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

It recalculated the asteroid's likely path and found it would miss the Earth by 600,000 miles.

Following the report, scientists began thinking about how they could avert another scare. But efforts to delay release of data could be difficult given the increasingly free flow of scientific information through the Internet.

The National Research Council's Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration brought together astronomers who identify and track asteroids, experts in risk management, seismologists with experience in earthquake and volcano warnings and reporters.

The main problem in reporting new asteroid discoveries is initial findings can be deceiving.

[ image: False alarms could lead to loss of face for scientists]
False alarms could lead to loss of face for scientists
Once scientists refine orbital calculations, only a fraction of asteroids that seemed potentially hazardous turn out to be headed close to Earth

Scientists agree that peer review of initial observations, standard procedure in science, is essential.

Nasa guidelines, drafted in April, recommend consultation and coordination among experts before any public announcements.

It might take up to 48 hours for experts to consult with each other. Nasa wants an additional 24 hours before the information is released.

Scientists have so far identified 123 potentially hazardous asteroids that could pass within 5 million miles of Earth.

They have discovered 200 of the estimated 2,000 large asteroids that could pass within 30 million miles of Earth.

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