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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Saving the world, finding comets....

Well I guess the hours are not great, but how about the job satisfaction! Rob McNaught works at the Sliding Spring Observatory about 400 km from Sydney, Australia. The observatory searches for comets and asteroids that could do to us what they may have done to the dinosaurs (see below). A significant fringe benefit of this job is that Rob gets to discover new comets. He recently set world record by finding his 50th. Congrats Rob!

The mission of the Siding Spring Survey is to contribute to the inventory of near-earth objects (NEOs), or more specifically, the potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) and comets (PHOs) that may pose a threat of impact and thus harm to civilization. The identification of the iridium anomaly at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary (Alvarez et al., 1980) and associated Chicxulub impact crater (Hildebrand et al., 1991) and perhaps recently the Australian Bedout crater (Becker et al., 2004) associated with the Permian- Triassic "great dying" (although the presence of shock metamorphism has not yet been adequately demonstrated), strongly suggests that impacts by minor planets play an important role in the evolution of life. These are a natural result of the accretionary process that formed the Earth and planets. Indeed, the 1994 impact of D/Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter provided tangible evidence of this. Although the collision frequency is much lower than in the past, the question is not whether there will be other impacts, but when.

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