According to a report first published in the Los Angeles Times on May 14, 1998, astronomers funded by NASA are being asked to withhold information on any new discoveries of earth-crossing asteroids and comets until that information is double-checked and verified.
The new procedures are intended to prevent panic from mistaken reports of so-called "doomsday rocks," like the worldwide sensation that occurred in March when astronomers reported asteroid 1997XF11 might collide with Earth in the year 2028. That report was soon found to be erroneous.
Astronomers whose work is funded by the NASA have agreed for now to keep new asteroid and comet discoveries quiet for 48 hours while more detailed calculations are made. The findings would then go to NASA, which would wait another 24 hours before going public.
The new interim procedures are not an attempt to hide anything but to make sure the information is accurate, said scientist Donald Yeomans of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It is an attempt [by] the small scientific community that tracks these objects to build a consensus, to determine if an asteroid is a threat," he said.
Other scientists question the new policy, saying quick action from astronomers is needed to determine an asteroid's danger. Moreover, there are so many professional and amateur astronomers around the world who could openly announce discovery of a threatening asteroid that any U.S. effort to hold up the news would by itself be futile, they said.
"What does NASA think it is doing preventing the public from hearing about a potentially hazardous asteroid?" asked Brian G. Marsden, director of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams and the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union in Cambridge, Mass. Marsden made the initial announcement about the asteroid 1997FX11 in March.
"I don't think one should be secret about these things," he said. "I think the public would be unhappy."
Normally, any new observation is reported immediately to the Minor Planet Center, where it is posted on a public World Wide Web site. It also is noted on a nightly electronic mail report sent to roughly 600 scientists who track such celestial discoveries.
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Original file name: CNI - Comet Secrecy
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