Background to FAIR

 In Frontispace Articles

The FAIR Society concept and its subsequent website were inspired by an article in Time Magazine.

On March 23, 1998, [Time] headlined its magazine with the title [ASTEROID SCARE: DOOMSDAY POSTPONED] and featured an article by Leon Jaroff referring to the 1997 XF11 asteroid. Initially this asteroid, 1.6 km wide and compared in the accompanying photo with the Manhattan skyline, was thought to be on a collision course with Earth. After an intense 24 hours, while scientists cross-referenced all the data they had, it was established that the XF11 would be a near miss in the year 2028.

However the article concluded with unanimous agreement between the scientists involved that just because the XF11 was a cosmic false alarm, there is no reason to assume that at some point there will not be one that won’t miss: it’s not a case of if but when. Scientists are also unanimous in their agreement that they can’t find asteroids because they don’t have the financial support to purchase equipment.

Courtesy: Time Inc. Time Graphic: Skyline photograph by Joseph A Rosen; Asteroid illustration by Ed Gabel

My immediate reaction after reading the article was that it shouldn’t have been titled “Whew!” but rather “When?”

Distinguished astronomer [Professor Tom Gehrels] (quoted in the report) of Spacewatch, Arizona, confirmed the article and encouraged me to delve further.

Noted columnist Dave Barry was similarly struck by the lack of “far sight” when he heard about the 2001 YB5 and humourously commented, “Excuse me for going into CAPS LOCK mode, but I am a little upset here. In case you didn’t hear about it, which you probably didn’t: On Jan. 7, an asteroid 1,000 feet across—nearly three times the current diameter of Marlon Brando—barely missed the Earth, which is most likely your planet of residence.”

The fact that we were about to be dinosaur-ed into extinction by a large rock, and it didn’t make the lead story in the magazine, was perplexing.

An astronomer was actually looking down a telescope and spotted Armageddon hurtling towards us at over 60,000 kmh. It was immediately allocated a name and documented: the XF11, alias “doomsday,” in the form of a 1.6-km-wide hunk of granite. Some intense calculating ensued, and it was decided the threatening asteroid was going to miss us by a cosmic bullet burn after all.

I found it even more alarming that the article quoted astronomy institutions as saying the “XF-terminator” isn’t alone out there but has thousands of mates still lurking in the dark.

Another smaller (450 meters in diameter) ballistic boulder, traveling at 93,000 kmh, shaved past a mere 450,000 km away two years previously. Though miniscule in space terms, the scientists added, it would have resulted in an impact, had it hit, equivalent to the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons detonating simultaneously. I found the fact that the astronomers only spotted it when it was FOUR DAYS away … well, even Hollywood couldn’t muster up a script in that time!

And yet, this news was relegated to the back pages. If the headline had read North Korea Will Have a Trillion-Ton Stockpile of Nukes by 2028,” would it have been more of a front-page grabber, one wonders?

Saying that an asteroid of mind-boggling destructive power missed us by a mere 450,000 km tends to sound a long way off, but when it’s put in terms of hours, as the late [Gene Shoemaker] pointed out, the distance is put into perspective. He said that when the Earth’s orbital speed and the speed of an asteroid are taken into account, distances in thousands of kilometers can be termed as a matter of a few short hours. Only a matter of hours has separated us from going about our normal daily business and total catastrophe … and will do again in 2028!

The idea of using the Internetwith a base of millions of ordinary citizensto high-light the issues and as a means for individuals to make a difference was the founding thought behind FAIR.

I asked Professor Gehrels what we could have done if the XF11 had been on a collision course?

“A rocket maybe … with a bit of luck we could pull it off”.

Bear in mind that we have had subsequent, even nearer and closer NEO encounters since this report!

Kitt Peak, Arizona, with Professor Gehrels during my visit in April 1999. Observatory telescope dome in the background.

Scientists suggest that with the current level of technology, the only way we would stand a chance of surviving an incoming asteroid would be to send out a rocket to destroy or deflect it. Maybe in the future there will be laser or other technology available, but for the moment the most probable way to defend ourselves is with nuclear missiles. And even that is “maybe” technology by the year 2028!

“It has been called the giggle factor,” said Professor Gehrels. “You’d be surprised at the number of people who refuse to accept killer rocks from the sky. It’s like they black it out.”

Initially I wanted FAIR to stand for “Future Asteroid Interception Rocket,” based on the assumption that we would be galvanized into action if an incoming NEOI were on collision course. Scientists have blueprints (not yet off the drawing board) for options. The most likely would be to send a nuke-deflecting rocket.

The idea that the FAIR site list of names could be digitally incorporated on the rocket or device being sent out to intercept the incoming NEO was proposed.

Professor Gehrels is a gent associated with the pragmatics of working within hierarchies and knew that obtaining the authority to build nuclear bombs, with funds privately acquired, for something that hasn’t been found yet might be trying to leap too many bureaucratic hurdles, it being an “only-if” event of the future and all. He merely said, “let’s get 100% coverage to start with.” In other words, lets start by finding them with an early-warning system; forget the rocket.

I had a lot to learn about simplicity and the reality of bureaucratic chain of command. So, the “R” in FAIR was changed to “Research.”

An article in the news around the same time presented me with another idea for promoting FAIR.

In Spain, the launch of one of that country’s satellite rockets was partially funded by taking the ashes of the deceased into space. A nice idea: after all people pay to have their names in the obituaries. I thought that if the same idea could be employed with FAIR, the creation of a permanently posted digital memorial list, placed on behalf of the deceased (also to be included in any future rocket mission) was an area to target. Fifteen bucks out of the funeral home budget seemed very reasonable, suggesting a couple of flowers fewer at the wake and sparing a thought for the future instead, all documented and permanently acknowledged on the Web. However obvious and well intentioned this particular concept was, the idea was scrapped as a double negative. Death and impacting asteroids mentioned in the same sentence didn’t go down too well, and we left the rocket memorial list to Science Faction.

Find them first!

After my visit with Professor Gehrels, I contacted a number of other astronomy institutions. All confirm the need for financial aid in this aspect of space research. I have been told that as much as 80 percent of our night skies remain unchecked, and the bit we have scanned has shown conclusive evidence of this potential threat. So, it stands to reason that the areas of space that we haven’t looked at also hold this danger. It’s a little-known fact that the scientists who conduct asteroid research receive nothing in comparison to any other science of its ilk.

It didn’t take too much research to discover that recently accumulated scientific facts indicate that this threat is far greater than previously believed. We have documented a number of shots across our orbital bows and gathered evidence of a couple recent nuclear-size impacts which justify our cause.

In Tunguska, Siberia, an area larger than greater London was flattened in 1908. In Wabar, Saudi Arabia, an impact crater previous thought to be thousands of years old has proven to be only decades young … tangible documented warnings! And there have been other megaton impacts within the last 150 years.

There is enough evidence to justify a global fund for a global threat.

This is a celestial roulette wheel, and where the ball will land can be predicted if we each pick a number—or point on the compass.

The chances of the planet’s being hit by a devastating asteroid of ex-dinosaur dimensions are fairly slim, we are told, but the odds of small one that will cause considerable damage are not that outrageous.

We don’t overly worry about being struck by lightening, but we take obvious precautions and erect conductors on the off chance that a bolt may just hit us. So, it should make sense to take similar precautions against an asteroid impact by building a global early-warning system and monitor the threat in the same way we monitor storms through weather forecasting.

Some people have a more fatalistic view of life and what nature throws at us. It wasn’t too long ago that lightening and hurricanes were thought to be direct acts of God’s, or the gods’, wrath. Now that we understand and know the geophysics of climate and weather, we don’t think of satellite forewarning and the use of conductors as interference with divinity. So, extending the principle of using technology to forewarn us about a threatening asteroid is no different. I reiterate this point because I’ve been surprised how many people immediately associate the topic with forces from another dimension.

I realized that an asteroid impact, even a small one, would cause a global problem. Therefore it’s a global issue. But, there’s no such thing as a global fund to finance research or to build a solid forecasting system.

Initially, the idea behind FAIR wasn’t understood because few people thought it was possible for individuals to do anything and that prevention must be a government’s or some other agency’s problem. Not so. Spaceguard, for instance, doesn’t receive a penny; observatories are being forced to close rather than being able to expand the science.

In keeping with the simplistic approach, FAIR was designed so that everyone who joined, paid the same entry fee (i.e., 15 euros). “Why stop people from contributing more if they want to?” My answer is simple: everyone will be equally affected when an asteroid is confirmed to be heading in our direction. Everyone pays the same amount regardless; in other words, it’s the same insurance premium for all! This also keeps the arithmetic simple, with no room for complicated figure manipulation. Folks wishing to assist more can do so by adding family members (even posthumously) or company employees.

FAIR has the direct online security of PayPal and the endorsement of scientists, and this society adheres to all the guidelines required of a nonprofit organization and to the basic principles laid out by charities everywhere.

Naturally, if interested parties are inspired, motivated, and inclined to support this sphere of astronomy further, we would be delighted to introduce them directly to the scientific organization they wish to assist. Contact us, and we will be happy to do so.

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