One Man's Mission to Track Flying Space Objects and Protect Earth

By: The Associated Press
By: The Associated Press
In a remote part of Wales one man has made it his life long mission to track down flying space objects that might potentially threaten earth.

In this photo taken with a mobile phone camera, a meteorite contrail is seen in Chelyabinsk region on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. A meteor streaked across the sky of Russia�s Ural Mountains on Friday morning, causing sharp explosions and reportedly injuring around 100 people, including many hurt by broken glass. (AP Photo/Sergey Hametov)

In a remote part of Wales one man has made it his life long mission to track down flying space objects that might potentially threaten earth.

The danger is a real one - earlier this year more than a thousand people were injured when a meteor exploded over southern Russia.

The hazy Welsh countryside, where sheep lazily graze, oblivious to the dangers that lurk in space.

It's here at the Spaceguard Centre that asteroids and comets are being tracked daily.

The data collected helps scientists around the world predict if these so called, "near earth objects" are on a catastrophic, collision course with our planet.

Director, Jay Tate, says : "The aim of the game is to find these things years, hopefully decades ahead of time, to give us plenty of time to find out what its physical properties are and then develop a counter measure specifically for that object."

The Spaceguard Centre is the only facility of its kind in the United Kingdom and it's perched on a hilltop near the town of Knighton in Mid Wales.

For the last twelve years, Jay Tate has run the centre voluntarily, without pay. Living side by side with his telescopes, the ex army officer believes hunting potentially dangerous, space debris is common sense and not a pursuit fuelled by paranoia: "This is actually, the only major, natural hazard that you know of, that we can predict and prevent. And in the ultimate, it's the only natural hazard that we know of that puts the future of every individual and species at risk"
A huge amount of space debris hits the earth every day without causing any problems, but when a meteorite injured over a thousand people in Russia earlier this year, the world was stunned.

Jay wasn't, and he believes the event was a "wake up call" .

He keeps an eye on "near earth objects" by tracking them down with his telescope, using co-ordinates and star charts to help locate them near to where they've been spotted previously.

Tate says: "Once we're there we can start taking photographs and the normal drill is to take a set of three, a few minutes apart, because then by comparing those images, we can see which of the star like objects is actually moving. If it's moving then the chances are it's an asteroid."

These images were taken by Jay's telescope and the blinking star in the centre is an asteroid.

Information about its changing position was sent to the Minor Planets Center in the USA, which is part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.

Astro-physicists rely on data provided by people like Jay to calculate the orbit of "near earth objects" and predict whether their path could be destructive or not, as Tate explains: "They are mainly in fairly stable orbits around the Sun. The asteroids for example between Mars and Jupiter, the comets much, much further out beyond the planets. But because they're so small their orbits can change, and if they change some of them come quite close in to the Sun and if they do that the planets can get in the way."

As scanning the skies is harder in the summer with longer days and shorter nights, Jay spends time repairing vital equipment. Luckily, there is a small group of enthusiastic, amateur astronomers who are more than happy to give up their spare time to help mend the equipment.

Trevor Hall belongs to the Marches Astronomy Group: "We've developed so much technology now, that we're getting into a position now where we can actually start chasing these down and do something about it if a large lump of rock were to head this way"

This building site at the centre of the site will be home to a new telescope, which has been donated by Cambridge University.

It will have a wider field of view, which means Jay will be able to search larger areas of the night sky and hopefully track down more "near earth objects". But what would be best way of stopping one if it did come dangerously close to earth and disaster was imminent?

Tate says : "Turn a direct hit into a near miss. If you can give the thing just a tiny, little nudge to deflect it from the course it's going to hit ,to one that isn't going to hit, job done."

This may sound like the stuff of Hollywood movies, but Tate believes governments around the world should be investing more time, research and money in tracking down "near earth objects", and taking their threat more seriously.

In the meantime, these telescopes on a hill side in Wales continue to keep an eye on the skies above.

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