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Brits scan skies for impact threats

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Britain is getting more involved in the search for potentially planet-threatening comets and asteroids, otherwise known as Near-Earth-Objects (NEOs). Astronomers at Queens University, Belfast, will track the NEOs and feed their data into the international programme set up to protect Earth from future impact threats.

The UK Astrometry and Photometry Programme is using one of the twin robotic Faulkes telescopes, located on the island Maui, to track some of the 30-40 NEOs discovered each month. At the end of 2004, they will also have access to the other twin, based at Siding Spring in Australia.

Dr. Alan Fitzsimmons, the project leader, said that in the past the project used telescopes on La Palma, "but for various reasons they could only track a couple of objects per month on average. The robotic nature of the Faulkes telescopes means that it is much easier for us to observe numerous NEOs than can be achieved by using conventional telescopes."

Data on the NEOs will be transmitted from the 'scopes to Belfast. Researchers at the University will measure the positions of the objects and send their data on to the Minor Planet Center at Harvard.

As well as tracking the space-rocks, Fitzsimmons and his team will also study their composition. He says that this data, as well as being scientifically interesting, will be very useful in mitigating the threat posed by a body that looks likely to hit Earth.

The Faulkes telescopes, named after British entrepreneur Dill Faulkes, are also made available to schools, thanks to Faulkes' commitment to involving school kids in science. Participating schools can use the telescopes to track asteroids as they move across the sky. ®

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