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SpaceGuard: A Brief History
by Dr. David James Johnson
 Los Angeles - August 24, 1999 - The term Spaceguard conjures up impressions of either a secret Military Unit or a plot in a Science Fiction Movie. In the past year or so, I have written a number of articles about Spaceguard, its mission and the need for such a program.

I have also received a number of questions as to Spaceguard origins, its history and how to join and how to help in the effort. To me this is wonderful, the word seems to be getting out there.

What is Spaceguard and where did it come from ? The Spaceguard Foundation only originated as a true entity since 1996, but the idea has been brewing since the 1770�s.

The term Spaceguard originated in the mind of the great science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clark, in his 1973 book titled "Rendezvous with Rama". At that time he could not have known of the significance that the term would wield some twenty three years later.

Edmond Halley first figured out that a comet's orbit could cross the Earth�s orbit, and that such an object could hit the Earth. After the three-million mile near miss of Comet Lexell in 1770, a sense of heightened awareness began to surface, but it was thought that comets could not possibly hit the Earth, as they were assumed to have no solid core.

In 1898 433 Eros was first detected, and noted as an Earth approaching asteroid. During the early 20th century a number of such objects were discovered, but the idea that these objects could pose a direct threat to Earth had not been considered as a problem.

In 1950 Fred Wipple challenged these misconceptions, by showing that the diffuse coma of a comet must originate from a solid nucleus. The end result was the realization that such objects could in fact impact the Earth. By 1972 only 13 Earth crossing objects were known to exist.

In 1973 Helin and Shoemaker began the first dedicated NEO survey. In 1983 Eugene Shoemaker and Carolyn Shoemaker began a second survey which went on through 1994.

In 1994, many of us were either glued to a telescope in our back yards, or at any available observatory to watch as Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 hammered Jupiter, further proving that such events do occur, and will occur again, and here as well.

In 1991 the Discovery Working Group, Chaired by David Morrison and the Intercept Working Group , Chaired by Jurgen Rahe and John Rather found that due to the nature of the threat, participation from a broad range of different country�s would be required to fully ascertain the level of threat posed by the many thousands of undiscovered asteroids and comets.

In 1994 at the 22nd General Assembly of the IAU , it was recommended that NEO studies be put under some form of international authority. Then in September of 1995, at Vulcano, Italy, a small sub-committee comprised of Eugene Shoemaker, Duncan Steel and Andrea Carusi explored ways of setting up such an organization, within a few months the Spaceguard Foundation was born. March 26, 1996.

We today have the technology to detect, verify and track such objects, and we may able to defend our selves from such encounters. But firstly we must be able to find and track them.

It is the opinion of author, that such a program needs the support of every nation on the Earth, as even the least technological of nations have some form of science program. In addition there are large numbers of amateur astronomers who are often responsible for many of the comets discovered.

Yet what is the SpaceGuard program really about? Is it about how much money we scientists can spend chasing wild gooses, or pipe dreams of big science grandeur? No it's about survival.. Survival of our species.

I have stated several times that individually we are merely a voice in the crowd, but if we speak in unison, and educate people about the real threat posed by comets and asteroids, then our voices will be heard.

It really matters not if this program expands and becomes part of the United Nations or the International Astronomical Union or some other International entity, as long as it progresses, and governments begin to take it more seriously.

How can one help ? Do some reading on the issue, don�t take my word for granted, just because I have a title and a position as an Astronomer. Once you have figured out what some of us have already discovered, then if you still feel this is a worth while program, let your Governmental Officials know that this for once a program that we truly do need, and that needs proper funding.

And tell your friends.. As if you are interested in any of the environmental "Save The Earth" Programs, then you have found the Grand Daddy of them all,... SPACEGUARD!

Spaceguard is in the process of change, it is linking up with the European Space Agency, to set up the Spaceguard Central Node, while at NASA funds have been allocated to conduct an extensive northern hemisphere sky survey.

No matter what country, each of us have the right to survival, as do our future generations, and to this author, that is what Spaceguard is truly about.

  • Dr. David James Johnson

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