The 4th IAWN Steering Committee Meeting

On 13 October 2016, the IAWN Steering Committee met in Pasadena, California. Those present and virtually present (via Adobe Connect) included Detlef Koshny, Michael Kuppers and Gerhard Drolshagen (ESA); Giovanni Valsecchi (IAPS-INAF), Line Drube Alan Harris (DLR); Linda Billings, Rob Landis, Victoria Friedensen, Kelly Fast, and Lindley Johnson (NASA); Michael A’hearn (University of Maryland); Tim Spahr (NEO Sciences); Romana Kofler and Daniel Garcia Yarnoz (UNOOSA), Makoto Yoshikawa (JAXA); Sung Ki Cho (KASI); and Clemens Rumpf (UKSA).

Rob Landis began with a general welcome and introductory remarks. His presentation also contained a summary of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), a plug for the new IAWN web page, an updated list of IAWN signatories, and a short discussion of IAWN in some upcoming meetings and exercises.  Rob’s presentation is here .

Romana Kofler next discussed the interface between the IAWN and the UN’s Office of Outer  Space Affairs.  Her presentation (here) discusses three main items for IAWN from the OOSA perspective:  general communication on NEOs for the public, object-specific communication with member states in the event of a warning, and lastly capacity-building through UN-SPIDER.

Next up, Detlef Koschny gave a very detailed presentation on ESA’s NEO-related activities.  In particular, Detlef summarized various studies and workshops, and also discussed some astrometric follow-up observations that included observing some NEOs near 27th magnitude!

Gerhard Drolshagen, also of ESA, followed Detlef with a summary presentation of IAWN-related activities.  Included in this discussion was an attempt at generating a new impact rating scale, in the spirit of the Torino, Palermo, and Broomfield scales, in hopes of creating some means of communicating this information with the public.  Gerhard also discussed communication of a credible threat–this is a subject returned to frequently during this Steering Committee Meeting.

Lindley Johnson next discussed notification criteria here.  This relatively simple-looking set of slides took awhile to discuss.  Criteria for reporting impacts, and possible impacts, is a knotty subject where actual announcements need to be carefully crafted and discussed.  As many other participants noted in the lively discussion at the meeting, there are actual concrete examples of scientists being charged with crimes for improperly discussing or predicting (or failing to predict!) earthquakes in Italy.  One expects that there will be plenty of lively discussion about not only reporting criteria, but actual wording of reports of impact alerts in the future.

Following a lunch break, Tim Spahr and Rob Landis led a discussion of thresholds and communication (presentation here).  They both stressed the subject is difficult, and that various interested parties might have different criteria (essentially size and impact probabilities) for notification.  Further, the tendency to hyperbolize impact threats by the media was driven home by the appearance of a humorous but true article in the Daily Mail (see the presentation for details).   Lastly, the presentation showed some of the content on the developing web presence.

Linda Billings ended the formal presentation block by discussing recent work on impact scales (presentation here.)  She stressed the need for common language and avoiding discussion of impact probabilities with the public, as the general public does not operate well in probability space.  Linda’s presentation also puts forth a standard template for close approach and impact announcements; the IAWN close approach reports are using this template partially, and will embrace it fully in the the next version or two of the reporting software.


The meeting concluded with a discussion of future IAWN meetings at UNCOPUOS in late January 2017, and at the next Planetary Defense Conference in Tokyo, Japan (web site here).









Minor Planet Close Approach Reports

Readers of this page will notice recent postings on close approaches of new minor planets.  We expect to produce these reports automatically for each object passing closer than 1 lunar distance from the center of the Earth.  These informational messages will eventually contain a bit more information on each object, including physical characteristics, where available.  The main purpose of these messages will be to note that close approaches of this nature are commonplace.  Further, providing some scale (the size of the Moon’s orbit) for reference may assist readers in picturing the range and geometry of each approach.  As the search capacity of the IAWN improves, we expect more objects to be found and reported on this page.  Keeping track of these close approaches is one way to view, in real time, the improving efficiency of the worldwide search network.

IAWN & SMPAG Open Forum

DSC_0267 (1)

(image credit UN OOSA)


On February 18, 2016 IAWN and SMPAG held an Open Forum associated with the 53rd session of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Science and Technical Subcommittee. The primary purpose of the forum was to provide the community with information on current and worldwide NEO efforts, and also to help stimulate interest to allow for broader, worldwide support for detecting, tracking, warning and mitigating a possible future NEO impact.

Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, began with some background, as well as introductions.

The first speaker was Rob Landis also from NASA’s PDCO, who provided some history of the formation of IAWN, the charter, and current status of some of the programs.  His presentation is here.

Tim Spahr, a specialist in groundbased observing and orbit computation, presented slides on current worldwide survey efforts, and some discussion of the orbit computation process.  His presentation listed some areas in which worldwide observers might contribute to IAWN.  This presentation is here.

Detlef Koschny of the European Space Agency presented the status of several efforts underway.  These include initial construction of a 1-m ‘fly-eye’ telescope capable of surveying the entire sky every few nights and an update the NEODyS-2 program which computes orbits and impact probabilities for all NEOs.  ESA is also interfacing with local agencies in disaster preparedness in the unlikely event of an impact in the area.  Detlef’s full presentation is located here.

Linda Billings, from the National Institute of Aerospace and currently a consultant with NASA’s PDCO presented and discussed communication efforts, as well as challenges, surrounding NEOs and potential impacts.   Linda stressed clear and precise communication, and using existing well-functioning communication models currently in place for other areas such as the World Health Organization’s outbreak communication guidelines.  Her entire presentation is here.

Claus Madsen of the European Southern Observatory presented on ESO’s ability to observe very faint asteroids with the large telescopes at their disposal.  In the presentation here , Claus shows some of the images of faint NEO recoveries and also lists the number of objects where ESO observations have removed any possibility of future impact.

Gerhard Drolshagen, also of ESA, presented a discussion of  Space Mission Planning Advisory Group functions and listed the current entities with membership in the Group.   Gerhard also presented on several space missions, some operating and some in planning stages, that will help our current understanding of science and technology requirements for future asteroid deflection.


2015 a record year for NEO discovery

2015 ended with the highest NEO yearly discovery total (1560) in history!  Congratulations to all the discovery and follow-up teams on this accomplishment.

The IAU’s Minor Planet Center maintains this page (updated daily) that tracks the number of discoveries by individual surveys.   A quick glance shows most discoveries, as been the norm for the past decade, are made by a few of the large NASA-funded surveys.  (for graphical information on historical discovery rates and a deeper dive into the subject, look here.)

Below is a snapshot of the MPC’s ‘yearly breakdown’ page, as well as a bar chart showing the same information:


Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 6.54.13 AM
The MPC’s Yearly Breakdown of NEO discoveries for 2015

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 6.50.13 AM


On the lefthand side of the table is the MPC-assigned  observatory code.  Observatory codes give the precise latitude, longitude, and elevation for each telescope location; this information is necessary for precise orbital calculations.  The main discovery stations are as follows:  Pan-STARRS (F51)Catalina Sky Survey (703); NEOWISE (C51); Mount Lemmon Survey (G96); LINEAR/Space Surveillance Telescope (G45) and lastly DECam NEO Survey (W84).

In order to compute precise orbits for minor planets, positional measurements (called astrometry) are required in the days, weeks and months post-discovery.  This astrometric follow-up is just as important as the discovery observations.  Without these, most new NEOs would be lost or have arcs too short to compute the orbits well enough to evaluate the possibility of impacts with the Earth in the future.  Thankfully there is a dedicated group of follow-up astrometrists–many of them from the amateur observing community–to provide critical data.  Below are several key follow-up stations around the globe; for a full listing of others check the MPC’s follow-up statistics page here.

H21 & 807–Astronomical Research Institute.  Operated by Robert Holmes, this used to be an amateur organization and is now funded by NASA.  The team uses telescopes in northern Illinois and also Chile.

291–Spacewatch.  Operated by Robert McMillan and team at the University of Arizona.  Spacewatch was the pioneer in digital discovery and astrometry of minor planets in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The 1.8-meter follow-up telescope is now among the world’s best at observing faint NEO targets.

926–Tenagra Observatories.  Operated by Michael Schwartz and Paolo Holvorcem.  Another amateur-turned-professional follow-up team that is now funded by NASA.  The telescopes are operated from Patagonia, Arizona.


Scanning further down this list shows many observatories scattered around the globe making useful contributions to follow-up, including two teams in Italy (160 Castlemartini and 204 Schiaparelli);  one in Arkansas in the US (H45, Arkansas Sky);  England (J95, Great Shefford).  Please note that many of the professional survey teams provide a large volume of follow-up observations as well.

A future posting will provide more detail on the work of these follow-up stations, with an eye on how others might join in contributing to worldwide astrometric follow-up efforts.


Statement of Intent

The IAWN Steering Committee invites nations, space agencies, institutions, and organizations to lend their respective capabilities (e.g., survey telescope operations; follow-up observations; orbit computation; hazard analysis; data distribution, processing, and/or archiving, as well as other analyses and infrastructure contributions) to participate in the IAWN. As a condition of this participation, partners shall accept the existing set of coordination roles amongst the various existing NEO network facilities and agree to a policy of free and open communication.

To date, the United States and the Italian Near-Earth Objects Dynamic Site (NEODyS) have indicated their respective roles and capabilities to the IAWN.

The statement of intent document can be found here.

Capabilities of signatories