Astro News Briefs: July 22–28

No Asteroid Strike in 2019

July 28, 2002 | Astronomers continue to monitor a newly discovered Earth-crossing asteroid, even though it now appears that no collision with our planet is possible in 2019, as had been initially thought. Designated 2002 NT7, the wayward object was first spotted on July 9th by the LINEAR telescope in New Mexico. Two weeks later NASA's orbital specialists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had pegged the impact probability on February 1, 2019, at about 1 in 250,000, whereas Italian dynamicists put the odds nearer to 1 in 90,000. Both teams agreed that the threat warranted a 1 on the 1-to-10 Torino impact-hazard scale. However, thanks to observations made on July 28th by Austrian amateur Erich Meyer, new orbit determinations have eliminated that possibility. There remains a remote chance that 2002 NT7 might strike Earth in 2060 or in the even more distant future.

Notably, in the past couple days apparently no professional either took the time to observe this relatively bright (17th-magnitude) object or to turn up a prediscovery image. The explanation, it seems, is that virtually all professional asteroid observers worldwide are converging on Berlin, Germany, for a big meeting this coming week. Thus, just when fresh observations of 2002 NT7 were most crucially needed, the usual cast of professionals were airborne or otherwise en route to the conference.

NASA's impact risk page for this object is http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/risk/2002nt7.html

The University of Pisa's corresponding risk page is http://newton.dm.unipi.it/cgi-bin/neodys/neoibo?riskpage:0;main

Details about Meyer and Erwin Obermair's 60-cm f/3.3 Cassegrain reflector are at http://web.utanet.at/raab/pomod/pomodhome.html


High-Speed Camera Probes Exotic Stellar Objects

July 26, 2002 | Using a new CCD camera capable of simultaneously taking 1,000 images per second in three colors, British astronomers have gleaned valuable insights into the inner workings of white dwarf-stars — and have high hopes of doing the same for neutron stars and black holes. ULTRACAM was developed by scientists at the Universities of Southampton and Sheffield in conjunction with the U.K. Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. The instrument saw "first light" in May 2002 on the 4.2-meter William Herschel Telescope (WHT) on La Palma, the largest optical telescope in Europe.

Further information may be obtained from the ULTRACAM project Web pages.


Arrests Made in Moon-Rock Theft

July 22, 2002 | The Federal Bureau of Investigation, working with NASA officials, has arrested four people and charged them with stealing samples of the Moon and Mars from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. A NASA press release states, "The employees — Thad Roberts, Tiffany Fowler, and Shae Saur — were summer employees and have been dismissed from their respective student employment programs based on their involvement in the case." Roberts had also been serving as president of the University of Utah Astronomical Society. The fourth person arrested was Gordon McWorter. Investigators say that on July 13th the group somehow made off with a 600-pound safe containing 218 lunar and meteoritic samples totaling about 10 ounces. Roberts, Fowler, and McWorter were apprehended one week later as they attempted to sell some of the precious bits of extraterrestrial rock to undercover agents in Orlando, Florida. Two days later Saur, still in Houston, was taken into custody.

To read the Houston Chronicle's detailed article about the theft, go to http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/story.hts/front/1504496.

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