March 25, 2010

Funding Cuts Could Harm Asteroid Research

Key observations of an asteroid with a slight chance of hitting Earth may have to be shuttered in light of budget cuts, officials at a Puerto Rico observatory reported on Thursday.

Officials at the Arecibo Observatory, who are tracking the orbit of an asteroid that could possibly make impact in 2036, are facing funding cuts starting in 2011. They are seeking to complete radar measurements in early 2013 that they believe will prove the asteroid, Apophis, will miss Earth.

However, in order to do so, they now need to obtain an extra $2 to $3 million in funding, or else they will be forced to abandon their research -- research that only the Arecibo Observatory will be able to complete, facility director Dr. Michael Nolan told BBC News science reporter Paul Rincon.

"If we measure [Apophis] in 2013, there is something like a 95% chance that we'll be able to prove that it can't hit the Earth in 2036," Nolan said. "At some point, you stop doing maintenance to the telescope and stop cutting the grass and then it's done"¦ the telescope has to work for us to do these observations."

Nolan told Rincon that he was "moderately optimistic" that the needed money could be found, despite National Science Foundation (NSF) plans to reduce Arecibo Observatory's funding to $9 million next year. That's $3 million less than their current operating budget.

The difference could be picked up by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who Rincon reports has set aside an undisclosed amount of money in their latest budget for Nolan's research.

"Losing the planetary radar capability at Arecibo would not only affect our ability to monitor the orbits of threatening asteroids, but would also have implications throughout asteroid science," Dr. Stephen Lowry, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Kent, told the BBC, "in particular with those studies that make extensive use of precise asteroid shape models that radar observing can provide."


Image 1: Arecibo Observatory. Courtesy NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF.

Image 2: Asteroid Apophis was discovered on June 19, 2004. Image credit: UH/IA


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