Crucial work abandoned by comet man

by Stephanie Zillman13 Jul 2012

Clearing the deadwood, trimming the fat – whatever way you like to spin it, this may be one position that NASA, nay the world, can’t afford to let go.

He’s probably one of only a few people in the world who lists “guarding the planet against catastrophic near earth objects” as his previous role description.  But a funding issue has meant the job of Australian astronomer Rob McNaught, aka Comet Man, hangs in the balance.

The world-renowned astronomer has personally discovered more comets than any other astronomer in history. What’s more, his work at NASA has contributed to the discovery of 400 comets and asteroids – including 80 classified as potentially hazardous due to their diameter and proximity to Earth. He is also the only astronomer in the southern hemisphere who has been working on an Arizona-based survey to find and track near-Earth objects and possibly help prevent catastrophic collisions.

Yet times are tough, and McNaught has now lost the NASA funding he relies on to continue his work.

While the Australian National University (ANU) has temporarily stepped in to make up the funding shortfall, a spokesperson said that long-term funding beyond the end of this year is “not going to come from the university”.

According McNaught, the Uppsala Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, NSW is the only project observing near Earth objects in the southern hemisphere  and gets a chance to see objects that the northern hemisphere surveys can't research.

But far from being acrimonious towards his former employer, McNaught said there’s no reason why NASA should fund every space program in the world. He has appealed to the Minister for Science and Research, Chris Evans, and the Minister for Industry and Innovation, Greg Combet, for funding.

Asteroids frequently collide with Earth, but every few centuries there is an impact event which causes serious damage and even loss of life. Luckily, it is possible to accurately predict where they will land or alter the object's orbit to avoid a collision, according to McNaught.


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