Worried by a recent incident in which an erroneous report of a doomsday asteroid caused worldwide headlines, government scientists have begun an exercise in the ultimate spin control: How to handle news of a disaster that could destroy the planet.
In a sharp departure from tradition, NASA now wants astronomers to keep news of any Earth-threatening comet or asteroid secret for 72 hours. But at least some scientists believe that the effort is doomed. If an asteroid were hurtling earthward, they argue, NASA would probably not be able to keep the news to itself even long enough to double-check orbital calculations, let alone enough time to prepare a policy.
That argument, however, has not deterred the National Research Council, which on Wednesday urged astronomers to find a better way to report the discovery of asteroids or comets that might threaten Earth.
Already NASA is putting together new procedures to ensure that its senior officials can control any announcement of a potential planetary threat. An international working group is mulling guidelines. And in June, the research council plans to convene astronomers and experts in risk assessment, hazard management and communications at UC Irvine to consider how best to break the news of potential disaster.
Astronomers are wrestling with the problem even as they accelerate the pace of such discoveries with new detectors to sweep the space around the planet. Thousands of near-Earth objects probably will be discovered in the next decade, the National Research Council panel said, and any of them could pose a delicate problem of public disclosure.
Indeed, in the past eight weeks, astronomers have quietly discovered 12 large asteroids that will approach uncomfortably close to Earth, but safely bypass it, in the decades ahead--as many as they usually spot in an entire year.
However, not one galvanized public attention the way doomsday news of a shard of celestial shrapnel called asteroid 1997FX11 did briefly--and incorrectly--in March.
That asteroid had something the others didn't--a press release from professional astronomers.
Embarrassment at that professional faux pas and chagrin over causing unnecessary public alarm is driving the current effort to find ways to handle such discoveries without imposing unwanted secrecy or threatening the openness of scientific inquiry.
"It is a very emotional topic with many people," said panel chairman Ronald Greeley, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe.
As an interim measure, astronomers whose work is funded by NASA recently agreed to keep news of such discoveries to themselves for 48 hours until detailed orbital calculations could be made. Only then would they pass on news of the discovery to NASA headquarters, which would withhold the news for another 24 hours, before any public announcement would be made.
"This is not an attempt to cover anything up," said planetary scientist Donald K. Yeomans at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose orbital calculations in March helped dispel the fear that Earth was on a collision course with asteroid 1997FX11.
"It is an attempt for the small scientific community that tracks these objects to build a consensus, to determine if an asteroid is a threat. Then and only then would an announcement be made to NASA headquarters and to the public--in that order."
NASA officials, he said, were "very upset" in March that they first heard of the asteroid threat from reporters. "Almost all of us found out by press release," Yeomans said. "Clearly that is not the way it should work."
The new NASA guidelines, however, grate on some astronomers who pride themselves on sharing their work as speedily and openly as possible.
Indeed, such openness is crucial to their research, astronomers said. When a new asteroid or comet is discovered, scientists need to collect as many sightings as they can to precisely plot its orbit in order to determine how close to Earth it may pass.
All too often, astronomers can get only a brief glimpse of the pinpoint of an Earth-crossing asteroid before it is lost in the star field--too short a time to gather enough data to make a precise calculation. Indeed, the first such potentially hazardous asteroid discovered--Apollo--was spotted in 1932 and then not detected again for 41 years. In the same way, an asteroid called Hermes passed dangerously close to Earth in 1937 and has eluded detection ever since. The first incoming asteroid detected last year could be tracked for only six days before it vanished from view.
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.
That essentially is how asteroid 1997FX11 came to the world's attention.
When a few reporters who saw the e-mail circular asked questions, a formal press release was issued March 12 by the American Astronomical Society.
"That was the mistake. The NASA leadership was embarrassed because they did not know what was going on," Marsden said. "But when the press is asking questions, I think it is reasonable to answer them."
So far, the only change that Marsden has made in how the center handles such information is to highlight potentially hazardous objects to make sure that astronomers make the needed orbital calculations and follow-up observations.
American Astronomical Society officials said Wednesday they have yet to take any formal position on NASA's new reporting policy.
In all, astronomers have discovered some 400 Earth-approaching asteroids larger than a half-mile in diameter, but that is only a fraction of the thousands of such objects astronomers suspect are out there.
NASA has doubled its funding for the effort to detect them to $3 million this year and has made it an agency goal to detect 90% of those larger than a kilometer in diameter within a decade--an estimated 1,400 objects large enough to cause a global catastrophe.
For most people, an asteroid impact is something safely in the realm of movie special effects, but for those planetary experts who specialize in detecting Earth-crossing asteroids, the possibility is a fixture of the night sky they scan.
"Certainly, I have had to address this sort of situation over the 25-years-plus I have been searching for these near-Earth objects," said veteran JPL astronomer Eleanor Helin.
"There are a number of instances where for . . . hours or . . . days we were uncertain of what we had found. Or of what threat it represented," she said.
"At the time it was: 'Gulp. What do we do?' "
For the time being, most astronomers said they intend to follow the new reporting guidelines as best they can, to temper their need for scientific openness against their desire not to disturb the public peace unnecessarily.
"It is a very tricky balance," said David Morrison, space director at NASA Ames in Mountain View, Calif. Morrison also is chairman of the International Astronomical Union working group that is considering the issue.
"The test will be the next time an object is discovered that has the possibility of hitting the Earth," Morrison said. "I don't think it will happen very often, but it will happen again."