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'Paul Revere' scientist suggests unusual asteroid warning system | (KRT) Just last month, a meteorite slammed into a village in eastern India.

Eleven people were injured and two homes were destroyed by fire.

Perhaps more unsettling, in 1908, a space rock screamed into Earth's atmosphere, exploding in the sky over a remote Siberian forest with a force greater than a 10-megaton nuclear blast.

Fires started, wildlife perished and trees fell for miles in every direction.

These days, efforts underway to detect comets and asteroids on a potential collision course with Earth include an unassuming scientist from Ridgewood, N.J., with an idea for a better method.

William A. Hoffman III doesn't have a company, or investors for his detection system, called "Looking out for you." But he received a patent (U.S. No. 6,452,538), and some distinguished astronomers say his idea is intriguing.

Hoffman wants to place telescopes on the outer-space side of telecommunications satellites where they can continuously scan the heavens, free from cloud cover that often hampers earthbound telescopes, to look for what astronomers call NEOs, or Near Earth Objects.

The data would beam down to a ground station and be sent - for a fee - to schools or institutions or individuals who could use it to pinpoint the rocks' orbit.

"I can't speak for NASA, but personally I think it's a great idea if he can make it work," said Dan Mazenek, an aerospace engineer based at NASA's Langley Research Center and director of a study on how best to search for large comets and asteroids that might strike Earth.

"If he can get the money to put telescopes up there then I'm interested in the results," said Lucy McFad

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McFadden was one of thirteen scientists and researchers who signed an open letter to Congress in July warning of the threat from space and urging the government to invest in some kind of system to help guard against a significant hit.

Hoffman is an unimposing man with a polite, professorial manner who acknowledges with good humor that many people might find his idea sort of, well, pie in the sky. And he's also realistic enough to know he'll have to make a lot of noise to get any investors interested.

"If I have to fund it myself it's not going to happen at all," he said.

He believes colleges and universities without an astronomy program might be willing to pay for the telescope data.

And individuals could access it via the Internet, where subscription fees and advertising might bring in revenue.

"There are lots and lots of people that would buy into the idea of helping protect the Earth by signing onto a program like this," said Kelly Beatty, executive editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. Whether they would pay for the privilege is another question, he added.

Beatty and others also raised numerous questions about technical aspects of Hoffman's idea.

Would the telecommunications companies that own the satellites agree to the plan?

Would cosmic rays interfere with the images?

How exactly would the raw data be processed into pictures of the heavens?

And perhaps the biggest issue: cost.

"We always ask, could this be accomplished from the ground?" said Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He was skeptical of Hoffman's plan, he said, because "it's more expensive to do anything in space."

But Tyson, who also signed the July letter to Congress, agreed there was a need to get something in place to identify dangerous space rocks.

"There is no organized effort to monitor the sky continuously," he said.

Hoffman, a graduate of Wayne High School who attended the Air Force Academy and received his doctorate in organic chemistry from Stevens Institute, acknowledged the challenges but welcomed any scrutiny.

"The more people that start paying attention to this idea, the more likely it's all going to work," said Hoffman, who spent his career working for a number of chemical companies including Union Carbide before becoming a chemical industry consultant.

Hoffman said the beauty of his early warning system is its relatively low cost.

He estimates putting the first telescope up might fall in the range of $2 million to $3 million, much of which would pay for the extensive testing needed to make sure the piggybacked telescope wouldn't interfere with the satellite's primary job of sending phone or TV signals down to earth.

The communications satellites are perfect, he said, because they are geo-stationary. That is, they stay in one spot, moving as the earth moves so the telescopes would be positioned around the planet and could watch wide areas of space.

"You're watching all the time; you're seeing a movie of the stars," said Hoffman.

As for actually seeing his dream become real, Hoffman acknowledges many hurdles.

"Somebody's got to agree that it can go on their satellite and somebody's going to be involved in the collection and distribution of the data," he said.

Several satellite operators, including PanAmSat and Loral Skynet, couldn't find anyone to comment on Hoffman's plan.

Hoffman said he approached a number of large corporations, including Disney, Time Warner, and Kodak, to gauge their interest.

The corporate interest hasn't exactly been high, he admits, although he's contacting some companies again in light of the scientists' July letter to Congress.

The 58-year-old amateur astronomer also said that although he'd enjoy reaping financial benefits from his project, he wouldn't mind if the government paid him something nominal for his patent if they promised to put the system in place.

Astronomers point to the 1994 collision of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter as an example of the force and devastation that can occur when one of a swarm of comets and asteroids in our solar system slams into a planet.

The massive blast created a dust cloud larger than Earth itself.

"You don't want to say `Gee, we missed that one,'" said Hoffman.

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© 2003, The Record Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services