June 30, 2008

Arizona Man Built $500,000 Observatory in Backyard

By Jeff Green

June 30 marks the 100th anniversary of an asteroid that exploded over Tunguska, Russia, with a force 1,000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that leveled Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

David Healy, by day an auto analyst with New York-based Burnham Securities Inc., wasn't around to warn people about that one. He built his own $500,000 observatory in his backyard in Arizona so he can have a shot at preventing the next.

Healy, 71, has some experience with predicting disasters. In 1979, as an analyst with the now-defunct investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., he was one of the first to project Chrysler Corp.'s initial brush with bankruptcy. He cashed out of Drexel before the company collapsed in 1990 under the weight of federal probes of securities violations. The profits went to fulfill his childhood dream -- building an observatory.

"I'm very proud of the fact that I can spend some of my ill- gotten money on doing something like this," Healy said. "This is something I've wanted to do since I was a kid."

He named his outpost in Sierra Vista, Ariz., the Junk Bond Observatory, after the high-yield debt that was Drexel's claim to fame and fortune.

Healy's love for astronomical photography prompted him to move to Arizona from New York. In 1996, he built an observatory with a roll- away roof behind his house on the outskirts of Sierra Vista, 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast of Tucson and 9 miles north of the Mexican border.

The skies there are "clear and very dark" at night, he says. In 2001, he upgraded to a new one with a traditional domed roof.

Healy is one of fewer than 200 amateur astronomers around the world who make up a shoestring effort to find the next heavenly body hurtling Earth's way. The trick is to track an object's orbit early enough to allow an attempt to alter its course using missiles or a spacecraft.

"This is the only natural hazard that we can hope to avoid altogether, if we have enough time to plan," said David Morrison, interim director of the Lunar Science Institute for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Moffett Field, Calif., and an expert on the search for so-called near-Earth objects. "It's a process that is highly dependent on volunteers."

By the end of this year, these amateur astronomers -- in cooperation with government, university and other publicly supported observatories -- will have helped identify and track the orbits of 90 percent of the 1,000 or so biggest near-Earth objects. That would include asteroids more than a kilometer (0.6 mile) across, Morrison said.

"I used to say that the number of people protecting the Earth from asteroids was about the size of a shift at a McDonald's restaurant," Morrison said. "We now have the equivalent of three or four shifts."

More than 5,500 near-Earth objects have been found, according to NASA. Most are "smaller" ones -- objects less than a kilometer and larger than a football field, like the one that exploded over Siberia. Just 3 percent to 4 percent of the potentially thousands of small asteroids have been tracked.

Healy discovered his first asteroid in 1998.

"It's a unique feeling," he said. "You're looking at this object on the monitor that no one has ever seen before."

The competition to make discoveries is intense, Healy says, because the items left to find are about a 50th as bright as the ones he was discovering in the 1990s. Most discoveries are now made by larger, publicly supported observatories, said Brian Skiff, a research assistant at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., which receives U.S. government support. The amateurs are valuable in helping refine the orbits, said the 52-year-old researcher, whose discoveries include 12 comets in his name.

Healy, by virtue of his 32-inch, computerized all-night robotic telescope, is among the few amateurs who have the tools to make discoveries, Skiff said.

"The chance of finding the one with our name on it is pretty damn small, but it's a contribution," Healy said.

Healy's interest in astronomy started at age 9, after a trip to the Griffiths Observatory in Los Angeles. It was reinforced in Mrs. E. Phyllis Devey's science class in Brentwood Town and Country School, where he was a classmate of actress Jane Fonda.

Thanks to software developed by a computer-savvy friend, Healy's telescope snaps photos most nights in a predetermined sequence that he reviews the next day. So far, he has discovered 487 asteroids, including 60 that he gets to name.

Healy, with his eye on the next generation of asteroid fighters, does show-and-tell sessions at schools with his smaller telescopes.

"Where's the next generation of scientists coming from if you don't turn the 9-year-olds onto astronomy?" Healy asked. "Maybe this will turn on the interest of a future scientist who will save the world."

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