Eclipsed

Arizona asteroid hunters were poised to save the Earth from Armageddon. Then a secret Air Force project took over.

In Deep Impact and Armageddon, last year's two Hollywood fantasies about asteroid-caused extinction, it's Americans who take the lead to save the rest of the planet from catastrophe.

In real life, the people who've embraced the greatest responsibility for saving Earth hail from a more specific location.

Arizona.
Arizona scientists have been among the most important figures publicizing the dangers of asteroid collision, searching for the next doomsday rock, and planning ways to save the Earth from a planetoid heading its way.

Last year, it was an Arizona scientist, James Scotti, who spotted an object named XF11, a mile-wide boulder that seemed to be headed for a possible collision with Earth in the year 2028. Scotti works at Spacewatch, an Arizona project begun nearly 20 years ago by Tom Gehrels, an astronomer who has labored as earnestly as any scientist to make the world aware of the threat of asteroid collision.

The day after the dramatic announcement of XF11's discovery, refined orbit calculations showed that the rock will actually sail past us with a comfortable million-kilometer margin.

However, if XF11 really were on a course to smack into our planet three decades from now, world governments would have scrambled to direct it out of the way. And they would have used plans developed in part by Spacewatch's Gehrels.

With the recent explosion of public interest in asteroids, Spacewatch and other asteroid-hunting programs such as the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search (LONEOS) in Flagstaff have enjoyed a sudden celebrity status.

That's quite a change for a branch of science that had been treated as a kind of poor stepchild by the rest of astronomy. After years of toil in obscurity and under meager budgets, Arizonans were poised to reap the benefits of asteroid-mania.

Asteroid hunters had finally hit the big time.
Then, quietly, their labors were stolen from them.
With no fanfare, a secretive operation developed by the Air Force began dominating the field of asteroid and comet detection. Now, with equipment developed at costs they won't discuss, a small group of Air Force technicians using a single, modest-size telescope in New Mexico has almost completely taken over the responsibility of mapping the Earth's neighborhood in space.

The Air Force's astounding success is great news for the planet, of course, and the public can rejoice that the military program scans so much of the sky night after night. But for Arizona astronomers who had invested their careers in finding hazardous asteroids, losing out to Air Force spy satellite engineers has a bittersweet taste.

It will be Air Force technicians, not Arizona astronomers, who will most likely tell Earthlings when they can expect Armageddon.

They promise not to hold back any secrets.

Tons of creaking metal are on a collision course with a startled photographer, and if he doesn't scramble out of the way, he might likely be pulverized.

With a nervous giggle, the photographer grabs his gear and scurries along the wooden floor to get out of the way of the moving steel walkway headed right for him.

Meanwhile, Tom Gehrels pushes buttons on a large metal control box at the Spacewatch telescope housed in a dome on Kitt Peak in southern Arizona, and seems oblivious that he'd nearly crushed someone by rotating the telescope into position.

"Every half-hour, I dash up here to move the telescope and check it with a flashlight," Gehrels narrates in his Dutch accent. "It's pitch dark. But the telescope cannot hit any of the steel struts of the dome or that would be the end of the whole project."

Gehrels watches carefully as the telescope--as tall as a house and big around as a car--shifts position, making sure it doesn't go near various steel gussets holding up the dome. Then he leans over and says knowingly: "I was watching him, incidentally. I would not have hit him. I could see that he just got out of the way in time."

"Sorry," he says to the photographer, who shakes it off good-naturedly.
Gehrels seems to enjoy the episode. For several hours, the astronomer dances around the 79-year-old telescope, moving it into position and then dashing downstairs into a control room to begin another search for dim points of light. The slender, flaxen-haired astronomer seems to relish catching his guests off guard with his dry sense of humor.

Only five years younger than the old telescope, Gehrels defies his age by nimbly twisting and leaping around the instrument to position it to explore new swaths of sky. The Spacewatch scope is computerized, but if it isn't watched closely, it's likely to plow into one of the steel struts or, as happens a few minutes later, dump its guidance system and stubbornly refuse to budge. But Gehrels never seems discouraged. He clearly enjoys coaxing the aging equipment and delights over what pops up on the computer screens below.

For decades, Gehrels has pursued a branch of astronomy that has, until recent years, garnered little attention or hoopla. But eventually, with the efforts of Gehrels and others, his passion--asteroids and the threat they pose to Earth--began to grip the public's imagination. Then, seemingly overnight, it became all the rage.

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