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Funding black hole means our asteroid sentinel may abandon crucial work

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Nicky Phillips, Tim Lester

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Comet man could lose his job

The Australian astronomer who has found more comets than anyone, now needs someone to pay for his work guarding the planet against catastrophic 'near earth objects'.

PT0M0S 620 349

A world-renowned Australian astronomer, who has discovered 400 comets and asteroids, may be forced to abandon his work searching for objects on a potential collision course with Earth.

Since 2004, the survey has discovered 412 near Earth objects, including 80 classified as a potential hazard because they have a diameter of between 100 and 150 metres and an orbit that comes within 7.5 million kilometres of the Earth's orbit.  

Rob McNaught has lost the NASA funding he relies on as the only astronomer in the southern hemisphere working on an Arizona-based survey to find and track near-Earth objects and possibly help prevent catastrophic collisions.

Hollywood knew how to end the Earth in <em>Deep Impact</em>.

Hollywood knew how to end the Earth in Deep Impact.

The Australian National University has stepped in to temporarily support Mr McNaught, but said long-term funding beyond the end of this year is ''not going to come from the university''.

Mr McNaught's record working in the Uppsala Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, near Coonabarabran, NSW, is formidable.

Since 1987, he has discovered 70 comets, more than twice as many as any other astronomer in history. According to Mr McNaught, the Siding Spring Survey - the only project observing near Earth objects in the southern hemisphere - ''gets a chance to see objects that the northern hemisphere surveys can't research''.

Astronomer Rob McNaught.

Astronomer Rob McNaught.

Since 2004, the survey has discovered 412 near Earth objects, including 80 classified as a potential hazard because they have a diameter of between 100 and 150 metres and an orbit that comes within 7.5 million kilometres of the Earth's orbit.

A fellow astronomer and colleague at Siding Spring, Peter Poulos, describes his friend as ''the guardian of all of us, in many ways''. ''He doesn't wear a uniform or a cape, but in the end he's the hero in the movie. He's the scientist that will discover the bad thing heading our way, and let us know.''

Mr McNaught has been extraordinarily successful, according to the head of ANU's School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Professor Harvey Butcher.

Rob McNaught's Telescope near Coonabarabran.

Rob McNaught's Telescope near Coonabarabran.

''We think he's just wonderful … one of the best in the world. This is work that very much needs to be done,'' Professor Butcher said. But he believes without a new, more powerful telescope and better facilities likely to cost ''a couple of million dollars'', there is ''no clear channel of finance'' to continue the work.

Mr McNaught said he had appealed to the Minister for Science and Research, Chris Evans, and the Minister for Industry and Innovation, Greg Combet. ''There is no reason why NASA should fund every space program in the world,'' he said.

A spokesman from Mr Combet's office said the government had been approached for funding and would consider the matter. While asteroids that collide with Earth and cause serious damage or loss of life occur once every few centuries, it is possible to accurately predict where they will land or alter the object's orbit to avoid a collision, according to Mr McNaught.

In 2008 the survey's parent program, the Catalina Sky Survey, which is run by the University of Arizona and indirectly funded by NASA, located a three-metre wide asteroid hurtling towards Earth. Within 24 hours the team had predicted, to within a kilometre, the point the object would reach Earth's atmosphere, over Sudan.

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