death from above

to mark the first month of the Mayan year of doom, super/collider will be publishing stories about and predictions for 2012 throughout January. we start with a look at one man's efforts to save the world from cataclysm via a DIY asteroid observatory in rural Wales, originally published in Dazed & Confused


Somewhere, far out the airless void of space, a massive piece of icy rock is cruising silently through space, bound for earth. Meanwhile, somewhere out in mid-Wales, one man is doing his best to make sure we see it coming. Jay Tate is the founder and driving force behind Spaceguard UK, a DIY asteroid observation centre run entirely from donations and visitor fees.

Every night, he scans the night sky for tiny, almost imperceptible dots moving between the stars: potentially killer asteroids that could end all life on earth. It’s happened before. Scientists have now pinpointed the crater caused by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, and in November a space rock the size of an aircraft carrier passed between the earth and the moon. “What the UK’s done is chair quite a lot of meetings and discussions and stuff like that, but it’s all talk and no action,” says Tate. “After watching [comet] Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact Jupiter in 1994 it seemed prudent to find out what was in place to deal with such a problem – and it turned out there was very little. So we decided to do what we can ourselves.”

Armed with little more than a conviction that something had to be done, Jay and his wife Anne opened Spaceguard UK in 2001. Their days are now spent showing visitors around the homemade centre, which helps to pay for equipment like the new 24-inch Schmidt Camera they are hoping to install – the largest telescope in Wales. Each night, Tate makes his observations until the clouds roll in, or until he’s too tired to go on. “At the end of the night, we get all the data together, send it out to the minor planet centre in the States where it goes on to the asteroid database,” explains Tate. “There are probably about a half dozen other observers in the UK, and the follow-up observations are mostly done by amateurs and volunteers.”

If such a DIY approach to preserving life on earth seems worrying, others around the world aren’t quite as relaxed as the UK. In the States, NASA’s own Spaceguard project – the name comes from a novel by Arthur C. Clarke – spent the 1990s searching for large asteroids that could threaten earth. Since then, a bunch of new monitoring stations have come online, including the super successful Catalina Sky Survey, which uses identical cameras in Arizona and Australia. Together, they have discovered hundreds of near-earth objects, including asteroid 2008 TC3 – the first and only one to be spotted before it hit the earth. “The first Spaceguard survey has already found and classified about 90% of the big potentially dangerous asteroids,” says Tate, “which is really good news. Now we've got to move on to the smaller ones but at the moment there's no coherent plan to do that.”

Facing up to the threat from asteroids is a lot like tackling climate change. It’s an issue that affects the entire globe but may not happen overnight. “I think part of that is the United States Congress sees this as a global issue that really needs a global solution,” says Tate. “At the moment nobody else seems to be interested in helping. Politicians tend to have a four or five year outlook: if you tell a politician it's not likely to happen in five years they switch off and say well that’s not my problem.”It’s going to happen sooner or later. “It's rather inevitable we are going to be hit by big things,” says Tate. “It’s happened thousands of times before and its going to happen thousands of times again. It’s not likely to happen tomorrow, but it’s inevitable in the long term. If you want to know what's going to finish off the human race, it's this.”

We can do something, and it won’t actually cost that much. “It’s a problem that could be fairly easily sorted out,” concludes Tate. “It is the only major natural hazard we know of that we can predict and fix, and of course its the only one that puts the future of every individual in the species at risk.”

to find out more about visiting Spaceguard UK, check out

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pick up the January issue of Dazed & Confused for more 2012 action – including Daniel Pinchbeck, virus hunter Nathan Wolfe, Greenpeace's Joss Garman and further reading on cosmic threats and DIY biology from super/collider and others

image above: radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55. credit: NASA/Cornell/Arecibo