After our near-miss with an asteroid on March 8, an Australian government official dismissed a plea by scientists that his country should spend money searching for potentially threatening asteroids that can only be spotted from the Southern Hemisphere, calling it a ?fruitless, unnecessary, self-indulgent exercise.?

On the Australian TV show ?60 Minutes,? Peter McGauran said a lot of worries keep him up at night, but asteroids are not among them. ?I?m not going to be spooked or panicked into spending scarce research dollars on a fruitless attempt to predict the next asteroid,? he said.

Six weeks before he made those comments, McGauran received a letter signed by 91 asteroid scientists pleading for a more rigorous search program. The letter pointed out that most known asteroids have been spotted from the Northern Hemisphere, so the skies below the equator now hold the greatest potential for a surprise strike. Since there are few other countries in that hemisphere that are equipped with powerful telescopes, if Australia doesn?t search the skies in that area, nobody else will.

The letter McGauran received was signed by several leading asteroid hunters and researchers from 17 countries, including four scientists at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which leads the primary worldwide asteroid search effort. Other NASA scientists supported the letter but did not sign it because they didn?t want to become involved in Australian politics.

Experts agree that it?s only a matter of time before another asteroid strikes the Earth. And they say that less than $1 million annually could fund an adequate program for finding large asteroids using an existing Australian telescope that was once used to search for asteroids. Australia cancelled its funding for asteroid hunting in 1996.

?Australia in this area is a pariah,? says Duncan Steel, who used to work on the Australian asteroid search but now teaches in England. ?It?s regarded as being a total outcast. It is the only country ever to have closed down a successful asteroid program when all the other countries are gearing up.?

The U.S. Congress thinks the threat is serious enough to mandate that NASA locate 90 percent of potentially dangerous asteroids larger than 1 0.6 miles by 2008. Searching in the Southern Hemisphere will be necessary for that goal to be reached. The debris from an impact by a rock that size could blot out the Sun, ruin farming and send human civilization back to the Dark Ages.

Smaller but still significant asteroids hit Earth as often as once every couple of centuries and could destroy a city. Right now, nobody can predict when one is coming. ?This is just a lottery,? says author and physicist Paul Davies. ?These objects don?t come on cue. It?s totally random.?

Steel says there are fewer people searching for asteroids worldwide than there are employees at the average McDonalds. But McGauran says, ?I?m just not convinced that the hype and alarm and even fear-mongering is enough to justify an instant investment.?

Scientists believe an asteroid or comet impact 65 million years ago led to the demise of the dinosaurs. ?The dinosaurs did not have a space program,? Steel says. ?That?s why they died.?

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