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NEO Public Awareness Symposium
October 13th 2003

International SpaceGuard Information Centre
Knighton, Powys

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In the light of recent media coverage of the threat to life on our planet posed by Near Earth Objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets, Jonathan (Jay) R. Tate of The Spaceguard Centre in Powys, Wales, convened an informal meeting of those who provide information on NEOs, and those who report the news to the general public. The aim of the meeting was to exchange experiences and views on this important subject in order to increase everyone's understanding of the issues involved, and the ways in which it is, or should be, responsibly reported to the public at large.

The Spaceguard Centre has been selected by the Rome-based Spaceguard Foundation to become the international mouthpiece of the many scientists that scan the skies for potentially hazardous asteroids and comets. Having, in the opinion of the Board of Directors of the Spaceguard Foundation, " ... become the leading public outreach organisation dealing with NEOs in the UK and probably the world ... " it was a fitting venue for such a meeting.

copyright © october 2003 morien institute

The meeting was opened with an introduction by Jay Tate, who outlined the dilemmas faced by those scientists involved in NEO research in the light of continuing 'scare stories' that appear in the media all over the world each time a new potentially hazardous object is discovered.

While much of the media coverage has tended to be of the 'end of the world' genre, he pointed out that this has mainly applied to sensationalist headlines which are often not justified by the actual stories written in the small print below.

He passed on the many messages, and good wishes, that had been sent to The Spaceguard Centre specifically for the day's gathering by many leading individuals in the NEO and space research communities worldwide.

These included David Morrison of the NASA Ames Research Center; Dr Brian Marsden of the Minor Planet Center, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and Professor Rick Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who first developed the Torino Scale in 1999.

Then on to the serious business of the 'rumblings' coming recently from some quarters about the 'wisdom' of putting new NEO information into the public domain in the light of recent media scare stories. Speaking from obvious personal conviction as well as his role as spokesman for the International Spaceguard Information Centre, he expressed the feelings of everyone present that, despite the risks of being accused of 'crying wolf', we must "keep total openness with regard to NEO and PHA data." The general public simply has the right to know - and everyone present concurred without hesitation or further discussion.

Dr David Asher, of Armagh Observatory in the north of Ireland, began his presentation with the question:

"Is there a need to compute Impact Probabilities?"

Using the example of the media frenzy that erupted following the IAU Circular to astronomers containing initial observations of the PHA, 1997 XF11, he outlined the subsequent newspaper predictions of 'impact' on October 26th 2028. Dr Asher then detailed the real hard work conducted by astronomers and NEO researchers worldwide before sufficient new data emerged some 3 months later, pointing out specifically the work of Paul Chodas at NASA, in mid March 1998.

Since that debacle, which had shaken the NEO research community in 1997/98, much had been learned that researchers had felt would not be repeated - but repeated the debacle had been on several occasions since, the latest being the QQ47 affair. He then presented an outline of developments within the NEO research community resulting from the growing media fascination with asteroids, and detailed different aspects of 'the process' of detection:

DISCOVERY:........... a new asteroid is found ..........

REDISCOVERY:........ an already known asteroid is found again by chance ............

RECOVERY:............. an asteroid already known is found when deliberately looking for it ..........

PRECOVERY:........... like a recovery, except back in time looking at images taken years in the past ..........

Dr Asher went on to discuss the "range of uncertainties", giving examples such as 1:1million for the QQ47 to 1:50 million for an unknown rock coming right at us at short notice. He wound up his presentation by detailing the very real difficulties of trying to explain "Impact Probabilities" to the media in two short sentences - which is about all they'll actually write in print.

The informal nature of the meeting meant that the presentations were more or less open discussions as various points were raised. CCNet moderator, Dr Benny J. Peiser, offered the suggestion that "if someone from the media phones, perhaps we should ask them to phone back again in 3 months after more observations have been done".

All agreed that this was an important point, as the need to alert astronomers to look at co-ordinates of initial observations was part of a 'process' that Dr Peiser pointed out is really "a non-issue for the general public". But it was exactly this 'process' that had alerted the science journalists who were also recipients of the IAU Circular about the XF11, and it was pointed out that the development and adoption of the Torino Scale had been in response to the media speculation surrounding the XF11. Dr Peiser further pointed out that we don't want scare stories every year and that "if you have a Torino or Palermo Scale it's only relevant to astronomers, not to the general public".

Dr Alan Fitzsimmons, of Queens University, Belfast, expressed similar misgivings, and mentioned several other media scare stories involving NEOs in recent years that, when taken altogether, leaves those involved with NEO research with the feeling that many science journalists don't fully understand the science they are reporting. Jay Tate felt that there are two media aspects of major concern:

copyright © october 2003 morien institute

1. The danger that if every new NEO discovery announced is seized upon by journalists, they and the general public will soon get bored by asteroid stories.

2. Consequently, when a PHA is discovered which is a real and present threat the media will disregard it as "crying wolf".

All present concurred this is a situation which the NEO community has to avoid, or better still, prevent, as there are still many uncertainties such as "at what level of risk do you advise on mitigation?" Jay Tate felt that while the decision on issuing a Press Release currently lay with the astronomers, the reality of 'impact probabilities' are either 1 or 0, making 'Scales' such as Torino or Palermo irrelevant to the real issue.

Dr Peiser referred to the scare over the asteroid 2000 BF19 and widespread media reports at the time, some suggesting "that we may need to nuke it". No-one expressed disagreement with his opinion that the main problem we have is the Internet, and that via the global computer network information about newly discovered NEOs is going out to all sorts of people who are not actually involved in the business of looking for asteroids.

He said, "We have scales, Torino and Palermo, which are for public consumption, and if we are going to retain these scales then all Press Releases should make clear the unlikelihood of impact. We must make clear that a Torino Scale rating of #2 doesn't warrant any concern."

Dr Asher and Dr Fitzsimmons concurred with this, and it was pointed out that any initial non-zero rating on the Torino Scale seems to stimulate some science journalists to jump the gun and rush stories into print. These stories are then being based on half-calculated orbits that are presented as 'impact probabilities' on future dates when the particular object may well be nowhere near our planet. Discussing strategies to prevent this sort of situation becoming standard practice was the main aim of the meeting.

Dr Peiser began his actual presentation with the fact that improved technical capabilities will mean that even more smaller Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) will be discovered in the coming years, and we will begin to detect the many 10m-sized objects which will, and do, hit our atmosphere. He proposed that there are a number of "uncertain phases between discovery and impact" - between Pre-disaster and Post-disaster, and suggested the following 6-phase definitions:

1 low probability phase
2 moderate probability phase
3 high probability phase
4 very high probability phase
5 confirmation phase
6 mitigation phase

He went on to define these as:

* Low Probability - below zero on the Palermo Scale

* Moderate Probability - above zero on the Palermo Scale, when it might be sensible to post clarifying information on Internet "risk pages", but no need for an official Press Release. But he also emphasised that it should be said that the particular object would be observable for the next few months, during which time more certain data would be gathered.

* High Probability - at this phase Dr Peiser gave his opinion that the point to make a statement should be higher than it has been, and that anything Torino-rated 1% is irrelevant for the public.

Jay Tate asked, "At what point does the astronomical community make any comment?", as mitigation and public announcements are essentially political decisions. Dr David Asher commented that "If there are scares every year then astronomers would soon lose credibility", something at the very heart of Jay Tate's motivation in convening the symposium, and the main reason everyone who attended was there.

an image of a comet or asteroid impacting the Earth from an original painting by Don Davis, NASA
a painting by Donald E. Davis for NASA

These points more or less were the essence of one of the main dilemmas facing astronomers and others involved in NEO research.

Over the past few years since the formulation of the Torino Scale in June 1999, observations of newly discovered space rocks have been given an initial Torino Scale rating, and after further observation these objects have been taken off the scale altogether.

Dr Peiser said that the average time between discovery and an object being taken off the Torino Scale was about a week. While Jay Tate added that in many cases this was often as little as 2 to 3 days.

This important part of the discussion essentially covered Dr Peiser's 'Very High Probability Phase', and he proposed that the 'Confirmation Phase' only kicks in when the impact probability reaches 95% to 98%. There was much discussion about these phases, and opinions varied, especially regarding whether or not the 'Mitigation Phase' should start somewhere between 10% and 30%. It was generally agreed that the main criteria ruling the start of any 'Mitigation Phase' was how much time there would be between discovery and actual impact.

The presentation of the first "Simulation Impact Emergency Crisis" proposed the following scenario:

1. A Tunguska-type impact without much warning. For example, 72 hours warning. What do we do?

2. Odds are it will hit one of our oceans or in sparsely or uninhabited regions of dry land.

3. Discovery is of a 50 - 100 metre object.

This led on to discussion about a 'Pre-Confirmation Phase', and the main factors suggested were:

* What everyone will want to know is whether impact probability goes down to zero, or up to 100%

* After 1 -2 days impact probability will increase, but not necessarily all the way to 100%

* Size estimates would be based on the intrinsic brightness of the object concerned

* We may by now know which hemisphere will be affected, and maybe we can narrow down the impact point because the impact radius will be reduced as more observations of the object are made

* A relatively small area of the globe will be affected, and this must be the major aspect of any and all announcements to the public

"Simulation Impact Emergency Crisis 2" gave the scenario:

a. 180-day warning, with the discovery having, after one week, an impact probability of 1%

b. JPL, NeoDys and similar websites will announce it and the NEO community will then have to react to media enquiries

At this stage it was pointed out that many journalists had not consulted the NEO community before rushing into print with 'impending impact' stories over the past few years, and several incidents were referred to. There followed some discussion as to whether or not the NEO community had in the past been too pro-active with the media.

Jay Tate stated that "We cannot tell JPL or whoever, what and/or when to announce impending impacts," and gave his opinion that the NEO community should be reactive not pro-active to the media. Asteroid 2002 NT7 was mentioned as an example in this context, but Dr Peiser pointed out that the BBC's Online Science Editor, Dr David Whitehouse, did ring around for confirmation before going into print in this instance.

Returning to the presentation, Dr Peiser then introduced a new and disturbing element for consideration:

copyright © october 2003 morien institute

"Months of Uncertainty & Anxiety" - caused by erratic evolution of impact probabilities during the final days, which he presented in a simulated impact case study with the following table:

  • Week 1 = 01% - Torino Scale
  • Week 2 = 20% -
  • Week 3 = 30% -
  • Week 4 = 12% -
  • Week 5 = 07% -
  • Week 6 = 09% -
  • Week 7 = 15% -
  • Week 8 = 37% -

Weeks 9 to 13 sees the impact probability drop slowly down again, before it goes up in Week 14 to 86%

The discussion of this "Simulation #2" focussed on the likely reaction of the general public to the above scenario. This, of course, would be a general public which, after enduring several years of media-hyped asteroid scares followed closely by stories of the 'astronomers get it wrong again' variety a few days later, would likely react in ways that may not be at all predictable.

If the situation were left as it stands at present there would inevitably be major problems for the authorities in maintaining public order, and being able to conduct orderly evacuations of the calculated impact areas. And, importantly, this situation will have arisen because the general public does not understand that the astronomers have NOT 'got it wrong again' at all, and that 'no retractions' have ever been made by astronomers regarding impending asteroid impacts, despite much media speculation to the contrary.

The general public, it was suggested, will never understand the situation that will have arisen if the NEO community does not make greater efforts to explain 'the process' from Discovery to Confirmation - either of impact or not, whichever the case turns out to be.

And it was also suggested that the science journalists themselves may benefit from having 'the process' explained to them, as all of the asteroid impact scares from the 1997 XF11 debacle to the most recent QQ47 affair have been started because some journalists have 'jumped the gun'. As many science correspondents are also in receipt of the IAU Circulars intended for astronomers, and which request further observations to confirm or dismiss earth-crossing orbits likely to lead to impact, some journalists it seems can't wait for 'the process' to complete. Many may simply be unaware of 'the process', it was suggested.

While such situations are obviously regrettable, and make the work of those trying to monitor potentially hazardous comets and asteroids even more difficult than it already is, it was heartening for an observer to witness such intense discussions in which the idea of restricting the circulation of information about new discoveries was never even mentioned as an option.

The very real problem of how to balance the commitment to openness that characterises the NEO community with the need to avoid repetition of the 'end of the world' media hypes of recent years was highlighted by "Simulation #3".

In this scenario a newly discovered PHA was given a theoretical 54 years before impact.

a. The impact probability remained below 1% for the first 60 days

b. It never rose above 7% during a 375-day first apparition

c. 600 days later, when the second apparition began, impact probability rose from 4% to 75% over the course of the first 25 days.

Dr Peiser proposed that such a scenario would undoubtedly lead to a period of "prolonged uncertainty" for the public at large. One outcome of this, he proposed, was that we could reasonably expect fundamentalists of various persuasions to exploit the situation, which would likely be interpreted as part of some 'prophesy', or another. The resulting implications for public order, panic and general chaos, possibly on a global scale, should not be underestimated in Dr Peiser's opinion. No-one disagreed with this scenario, though few people in the NEO community worldwide appear to have thought things through in this particular direction.

Jay Tate reiterated a point he had made earlier that "Timescales are important - 500 years or 5 years affects mitigation strategies". Dr Peiser and others concurred, and he emphasised that even with 5 years warning "Whatever nature throws at us we can mitigate damage by evacuations of impact areas".

In line with the intended 'brainstorming' nature of the meeting, this led to a general discussion about how much of the world's population is at present familiar with the actual 'experience' of evacuation. It was suggested that very few densely populated areas of the world could be expected to react positively at short notice to instructions to evacuate, simply because of unfamiliarity with such emergency procedures. The only obvious exception to this being the eastern seaboard of the United States of America, where typhoon/hurricane warnings are so frequent that the populace take immediate evacuation procedures in their daily stride. Peoples of other lands where annual natural cycles, such as rainfall resulting in regular serious flooding, may also be better mentally prepared to cope with emergency evacuation procedures due to any other forms of disaster.

an image of a meteor flashing through the sky

Following a light lunch, during which time the BBC's Online Science Editor, Dr David Whitehouse, was brought up to speed with the morning's discussions, he began his own PowerPoint presentation with the heading:

copyright © october 2003 morien institute

"What The Media Wants?"

He explained that most journalists simply want a story. Any story will do. The pressure to find 'exclusive' material in the age of 24-hour TV and Internet news is immense, and the average quality of news stories is quite poor, as anyone watching the repetition of stories every 15 minutes or so will appreciate.

This is something that the NEO community has to bear in mind when dealing with the media, he said, and pointed out that:

"The average journalist wants any story, and doesn't really care if it's correct because it can always be corrected later."

This certainly struck a chord with the scientists and others involved in the NEO community to whom it was addressed, and Dr Whitehouse emphasised that they should also realise that science journalists and reporters almost always knew much more about the subject than the average editors. It is the editors who will make the decision on whether or not to run a story, and this may often be solely dictated by considerations such as "CNN are running it, so we should too".

Another aspect of media politics that most in the NEO community would not be aware of was that ordinary journalists would keep their 'exclusive stories' away from the science correspondents just to get their stories published. They may well have been advised by their editors to run it by the science correspondents, but they know that if their story contains some dodgy science, these science experts will dismiss the story before it gets anywhere near to being printed. So scare stories can often get into print by this route, especially as the media likes "something different" and can always find a "peg" on which to hang the most unlikely of stories.

Dr Whitehouse explained further that "Readers don't remember the particulars and details of stories. They just remember 'the impression' given by the headlines and the first 2 or 3 sentences." What journalists need when looking at stories about asteroids are simply a date, size, and the odds against impact.

For this the Torino, Palermo, or even a Hollywood scale, is something that is ultimately convenient to both journalist and readership alike. Such scales can be referred to in the body of the text, but also lend themselves perfectly to graphic illustrations that both readers and editors find attractive and helpful.

His presentation included numerous examples from a variety of media, including some of his own stories about asteroids that appeared on the BBCi Science/Nature webpages.

Example 1 was from the BBC website dated July 24, 2002, and headlined "Space Rock 'on collision course'". Dr Whitehouse demonstrated how he as a science editor went about analysing the text, commenting on the soundness or otherwise of the actual 'science' in the reporting. He pointed out with each article he used as examples that the statements made, where they are scientifically sound, were often not accurately reflected in the headlines. These, he explained, were generally changed by the editors late on, often just before publication time or date, simply "to drag you into the story". The reporters themselves often knowing nothing of the headline changes until they actually see their stories in print some time later.

Some of the other examples Dr Whitehouse gave included:

"Asteroid could hit Earth in 2880"

copyright © april 2002 BBC News Online

BBC News Online, April 5th 2002

This story was about asteroid 1950 DA, and included a graphic image of the Arizona Meteor Crater that was placed immediately below the headline.

you can access this story directly from the BBC News Online archive either by clicking on the headline or by clicking on the image to the left ...


"Earth's Close Shave"

copyright © march 2000 BBC News Online

BBC News Online, March 21st 2000

This story was about asteroid 2000 EW70, and included a graphic representation of the Torino Scale immediately below the headline.

you can access this story directly from the BBC News Online archive either by clicking on the headline or on the image to the left ...


"Asteroid to miss - this time around"

copyright © july 2002 BBC News Online

BBC News Online, July 29th 2002

This story was about asteroid 2002 NT7, and included a photo taken using a telescope with a small white dot circled, and a caption underneath reading:

"It has been called the most threatening object in space"

again, this graphic was immediately below the headline, and can be accessed by clicking on the headline or the image to the left ...


"Asteroid update: End of world on hold"

copyright © september 2003 CNN

CNN, September 5th 2003

about asteroid 2003 QQ47, again with an accompanying graphic, and the lead sentence reading:

"A newly discovered asteroid has zero chance of colliding with Earth in 11 years, although preliminary data had suggested such a doomsday scenario was possible, astronomers said this week."


"Asteroid Threatens Earth"

copyright © july 2002 Sky News

Sky News, July 24th 2002

although the story never actually mentioned asteroid 2002 NT7, an impact graphic was supplemented by a video clip, and a first paragraph which included the words:

"... considered to be the biggest natural threat to human existence, according to scientists ..."

this graphic was immediately to the left of the headline, and can be accessed by clicking on the headline or the image to the left ...


Dr Whitehouse described all these stories as "a bit of fun - with graphics", and reiterated his earlier point that the headlines are usually changed late on by editors. A further example he gave came from both The Times newspaper and The Sun newspaper, which, while they are looked upon as rival publications, used the same graphics probably because they are both from the same Rupert Murdoch stable. The Times text was analysed as containing "good science", while The Sun even managed to get a comment about the end of the world from that day's Page Three girl. These particular examples illustrated what happens to sound scientific data once it gets into the public domain.

He told those present that people will generally come away with "the impression" they get from the headline, the graphics, and maybe the first 2 or 3 sentences. Many readers may only ever read these, and the fuller explanations given painstakingly by NEO scientists may often not be read at all.

He also emphasised the important point that "The Torino Scale is a God-given gift to journalists looking for a story" as this can often be the "peg" they need to get their stories into print. He explained that, despite the now well-established media cycle of 'scare-story' followed shortly by 'correction', another story will come along in another 6 months and journalists will always find a new angle to write it from. What the NEO community has to realise when issuing Press Releases is that newspaper and TV news editors have no scientific training or knowledge, and are more concerned with simply "getting the story in", especially if it's appearing elsewhere.

But, in contrast to this, Dr Whitehouse explained that even with the best will in the world, "Sometimes you can't get hold of any experts before your publication deadlines, so you just have to do your best." He said that most journalists wouldn't want to repeat the asteroid scare stories too close together, and that anyway these hyped-up stories won't "queer the pitch" for a real story of a definite threat because the experts will say "this is different", and the science journalists will listen. This was reassuring - but very much in a 'lets-wait-and-see' way.

Having finished his presentation, at this point a general discussion ensued which focussed on the various fears of the NEO community. Fears such as the perception in some quarters that scientific "'experts' only use the media to help them get funding for research projects. Further, that many involved with asteroid research feel that the public perception of boffins who have to retract their stories 2 to 3 days later, will make the whole NEO community look bad.

Empathising with these justified concerns, Dr Whitehouse gave his opinion that NEO research is a "young idea", and because of this many dilemmas are arising for NEO scientists. Many of those present expressed concerns that the NEO community, in their commitment to complete openness with regard to making their discoveries public, might be perceived by the same general public as always 'crying wolf'. It was explained to him that this is a matter of great concern to all involved with both the asteroid research itself, and with the public outreach efforts of SpaceGuard organisations.

Dr Whitehouse responded, "I personally wouldn't be bothered about 'crying wolf' on these type of stories". But he also said that we should all be aware of the consequences of putting out Press Releases every month, as if this were to become standard practice the whole of the NEO community certainly would be regarded as trying to manipulate the media. Using the medical world as a comparison, he said, "Some medical specialists go out of their way to generate stories for their own reasons." The point wasn't lost on those listening.

Dr Peiser added that, in terms of science, astronomy is always regarded as "a more accurate science", and astronomers as "a pressure group with a more ethical approach". Explaining that if we don't want to be accused of hyping it up, or doing it too much, he asked openly, "how should we handle this problem?"

Dr Whitehouse elaborated his analogy further. "The NEO community talks in terms of 'risks'," he said, while Scientists dealing with health matters, i.e. food, BSE, GM issues etc, talk in terms of 'safety'.

Asked by Jay Tate if he thought the NEO community has a PR problem, he replied, "I think your 'raw material' is very interesting and very newsworthy. But there are various factions within the scientific community who may or do not see the 'risks' in the same way. It is one of the few areas of astronomy that has a general public relevance."

Asked to elaborate, Dr Whitehouse repeated his feelings that "You have wonderful raw material that was not handled in the right way with the media." This time he used the media coverage of the Beagle Two as analogy. Here was a similar situation, he said, where excellent scientists, with the best of motives but no media savvy, mishandled the media who otherwise might have made much more of the Beagle Two story than they eventually did.

On the point of an individual 'peg' to hang the story on, Dr David Asher asked about "the general threat out there from asteroids and cometary debris". Dr Alan Fitzsimmons concurred, and added that, what NEO researchers regard as "the normal general threat", may not in itself be seen by the media as constituting a 'peg' at all. He explained that "the normal general threat" posed to the Earth by NEOs on a daily basis is in fact "the context" in which all the detection programmes have to operate. Indeed, it is "the context" in which the Earth itself exists.

And this is where the main dilemma for the NEO community seems to lie in its dealings with the media. Although no-one mentioned it specifically during the meeting, the general public would probably be amazed to learn that, although estimates vary, the Earth sweeps up somewhere close to 145,000 tonnes of cosmic dust and cometary debris each year in its orbit around the sun. In all probability most science journalists would be amazed to learn this fact as well, so in a way it's not surprising that some incoming space rock appears 'out-of-the-ordinary' even to most of them.

But this is "the context" in which NEO scientists have to search the skies for 'rogue asteroids' on Earth-crossing orbits. And it was this point that was emerging in the discussions as being central to the general misunderstandings that have characterised media coverage of the asteroid threat in the past few years.

Dr Peiser, who is the moderator of the CCNet, reflected this reality when he said, "We get 5 to 10 asteroid stories a month. We should learn lessons from these mishaps in the media. The impression people are left with is one where the NEO community is seen as having to retract stories, even though no-one has 'retracted' anything." He carried on to explain in more detail that "The process of discovering true orbits is not at all known by the general public."

Dr Whitehouse advised that future dealings with the media would have to be better thought out in advance, especially in terms of the issuing of Press Releases. "You've got to talk to journalists about other aspects and ways of looking at asteroids than impact probabilities," he said, and suggested that, "the NEO community needs to become more media savvy, and look for stories other than ones about the latest rock to be discovered."

There was much animated discussion about this, and Dr Peiser summed up the present situation, saying, "We risk being perceived as being too hasty, and some science correspondents will be reluctant to look at similar stories again." While this opinion was realistic in the context of past experience, it was, though, rather pessimistic. There are many other reasons why media professionals may not always appear interested in asteroid stories, explained Dr Whitehouse, "Science journalists don't want to be seen as 'over-selling' their stories. And some editors don't like science stories at all."

"The picture the public are getting is one where they realise there is an active and developing science looking at the threat from NEOs. With BBC News Online we try to write stories in such a way that the readers will get the gist of the story in the first four paragraphs," he said.

Going on to reassure the scientists that their handling of the media will improve as they, in turn, begin to understand just how the media works, he explained that there are "A great number of scientists who don't appreciate the complexities of the media. Different types of stories for different outlets."

Jay Tate, whose job it now is to present the case made by NEO scientists to both the media and the public at large, brought up the point that the NEO community is sometimes looked upon sceptically by other astronomers. He asked generally, now that the new Torino Scale ratings will show Torino #1 as 'normal', "How can we manage it?"

To this Dr Peiser added, "The Torino Scale is not helpful because it doesn't put the risk in context," explaining that, for any newly discovered NEO, "the 'impact probability' is meaningless unless we explain how long it has been observed" . Dr Whitehouse agreed, and advised "You have to find a way of explaining that Torino Scale classification is a 'temporary factor'."

While Dr Whitehouse may be one of the few science journalists who really does understand the problems facing the NEO community, regarding the dilemma of explaining 'the context' referred to by the scientists he cautioned, "If you say this is 'commonplace' you take away the root of the story. You have to find a way to say Torino 1 to 3 is of technical interest only, and of no human concern." To which Dr Peiser added, "The 'impact probability' is meaningless unless we explain how long it's been observed."

an image of a fireball taken by John Burnett in early October 2003
copyright © september 24 2003 jon burnett

At this point, then getting late in the afternoon, discussions turned again to the recent debacle surrounding the so-called 'Welsh Fireball' photographs. Dr Peiser had brought with him some new photographs taken of the phenomenon from Cambridge. Projected onto the screen, these images appeared to show what looked like aircraft 'contrails' reflecting the setting sun in one shot, yet in another seemed to look like a definite 'meteoric fireball' .

Most of the images were available to compare with each other, and despite the gathering of expert opinion looking at them, it was the resulting media coverage since NASA used the original photograph as its "Astronomy Picture Of The Day" that eventually dominated the discussion.

In that instance there had indeed been 'a retraction', and how the subsequent furore may affect the credibility of the NEO community in the future was something some participants were left pondering as the meeting came to a close.

John Michael, The Morien Institute, October 14th 2003


As of Today
according to Near-Earth asteroid monitoring groups
the ever-increasing number of
KNOWN Potentially Hazardous Asteroids
in Earth-Crossing orbits

are listed here

Why Does This Number Go Up, Then Sometimes Go Down?

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remains of an ancient 'Megalithic Complex' at
Maesoglan, Ynys Môn

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- Alban Elfed 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Maesoglan -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- August 20 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Maesoglan -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- August 20 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Bryn Ceinwen -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- August 3 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Cefn Mawr Uchaf -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- August 19 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Caeau Brychion -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- July 27 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Maesoglan -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- July 27 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Maesoglan -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- Alban Eilir 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Maesoglan -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- August 08 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Tre-ferwydd -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- September 21 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Llwyn Ceirios -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- September 21 2003 -
- Standing Stone at Tre Ifan -

copyright © 2003 morien institute


- March 27 2002 -
- Standing Stone near Llanerchymedd -

copyright © 2002 morien institute


- December 22 1998 -
- The Mabyn rising over
Mynydd Dinas, Rhondda -

copyright © 1998 morien institute


- Alban Eilir 2003 -
- First Light at Bryn Celli Ddu -

copyright © 2002 morien institute

Over the spring and summer of 2003, the Morien Institute engaged in a series of expeditionary field trips to the southwest area of Ynys Môn (Anglesey) to explore the remnants of the ancient stone science left by our distant ancestors.

Beginning on March 21st, the first place visited was the ancient stone chamber known as Bryn Celli Ddu, where the pre-dawn mist still hung around the local hollows, and the cows in adjacent fields watched as we waited to photgraph the Alban Eilir (Vernal Equinox)' sunrise.

After sunrise, the researchers left to pay an early morning visit to the 12ft and 14 ft. standing stones at Bryn Gwyn Farm, and chanced upon the farmer, Mr Alun Roberts, who pointed out that, on the 14ft. stone there are three 'grooves' which appear to have been cut by those ancient people who erected them.

He also told that, in the recent past, some visitors to the stones arrived to witness an interaction between the largest stone and the sun, which, on a certain day or days of the year, when low in the sky and directly behind the largest stone, shone only through the three grooves, casting 'three rays of light' onto three smaller stones in the adjacent field.

Meandering on slowly through the narrow winding lanes that stretch between Brynsciencyn and Llangaffo, it wasn't very long before the researchers found themselves being uncannily 'drawn' to the area that has been known to generations of local people as "Maesoglan". And it was there, just as the road turns sharply towards Llangaffo, that the stones were first encountered, standing proud on the local horizon against the majestic backdrop of Eryri (Snowdonia).

Many more field trips to "Maesoglan" over the following six months were undertaken with the friendly support and advice of the landowner, the farmer Mr R. Cecil Hughes, who brought other standing stones in nearby fields to our attention. The pictures to the left are of some of the stones at "Maesoglan" and adjacent farms, which must at one time have been part of a substantial megalithic complex covering many square miles in area between Brynsciencyn and Llangaffo.

All the stones were photographed, they were also 'marked' at various times over the spring and summer on the GPS unit to get an average of many readings for a more accurate placement, and during several visits a large number of compass bearings were taken toward the feature-rich, distant horizon of the Snowdonia mountains, to determine the directions of solsticial and equinoctial sunrises.

One particular direction stood out immediately as something special, and compass bearings taken from one of the ancient standing stones in the field at "Maesoglan" indicated it was precisely in the direction of the Alban Arthan (Winter Solstice) sunrise - a picture of the midwinter event in 2003 is shown immediately below.

It is just above a poem which had been composed more than 25 years ago whilst the poet, Mr T. Llewelyn Williams, of Bangor, Gwynedd, had become 'enchanted' by the ancient 'Awen' (inspiration) following an earlier Alban Arthan sunrise visit on a crisp midwinter morning in 1977.

... Alban Arthan 2003 ...
... A Standing Stone At Maesoglan ...

copyright © december 2003 morien institute



Midwinter sun, you are full of rock
And the men who are dark to us.

But as I wait, westerly in the webbed
Crisped field of frost and night shapes
Of cattle and standing stone, for the solstice
To declare itself in the angle of rock
And along the winter edge of the maenhir
Of Maesoglan - are you dark to me,
My brother, who set time here with your
Eyes and your keen mind for truth?

Are you dark to me now, my brother?
No more, now that I know how and why
You placed this stone precisely here -
In just this way for you - and for me.
I only know the shortest day because
Of your need - before there was the written
Lie - to fix the spinning of Earth
To the almightiness of the sun,
To the crescents of moons and a Pole Star
Stalking dragons in Arth Fawr for the tip
Of your outstretched finger in the green
Fields of your life and north to the sea.

Midwinter sun, you climb the bright
Sky behind Yr Wyddfa, flashing high
Thin scrawled clouds with daytime,
And I wonder why I have been drawn,
Middle-aged from my bed, to stand alone
Where I have never before been, knowing
That this stone rifles my sight across four
Millennia, and something that hurries the blood,
To the one sharp angle, tall and black
On the skylined back of Eryri.

Tell me, my small-boned brother, how
Do I have this conviction that our sun
Will rise like a bird of paradise
From the deep tangle of its winter nest
To stripe the sharp field with copper lustre,
Scribing there the steep toothed gap
Of Moel Eilio and Yr Aran?

When you set this stone, did you
Feel beyond your need for calendar
And of order for your crops and rites?

When you set this stone, did you
Imagine a world, beyond your sights,
Grown calloused old in mind and care?

When you set this maenhir in Maesoglan
And honed its sharp edge to the sky,
Did you think of me to come to Môn,
In the dark, to see the fire bird issue like
Paradise from the mountains of longing?

When I sighted along this stone,
I did greet more than the rising sun
Over the shoulder of a mountain -
For I saw you, prone at my feet,
With face to the living dawn
And as content as I was thrilled
To be together over time and tongue.
And I felt certain my words meant
Your words of haul for sun and
Effro for awakening, and maenhir
The long stone, and the longest
Stones standing on the shortest day -
Yr Wyddfa, Moel Eilio, Yr Aran.

And I knew of our life force spiralling
In your stone and light spinning
The sky and water divined underfoot;
And the gladness of it and meeting you
I heard come shouting from my throat
To stir the cattle in Maesoglan's field.

It was Midwinter Day, AD 1977
And two thousand years to Bethlehem -
And a nova that called kings from afar
And the fire birds the shepherds from the hills.

T. Llewelyn Williams (1923 - eternity) ...


On the eve of Alban Arthan, the Winter Solstice, December 20th each year, the druids of Morganwg observed the rising of the sun, and for that day only bestowed upon it the title/name of "Aran". As the sun climbed to it's lowest annual declination in the sky, they observed his annual slaughter by his brother, "Afagddu", the personification of the "powers of darkness".

Watching as the bleeding sun set (in the Rhondda over Gilfach Goch), they lamented the annual 'death of the old year', and for the next 40 hours awaited the resurrection and rebirth of the New Year in the rising of the new-born sun on December 22nd.

Throughout the day of December 21st, the Winter Solstice itself which they termed Alban Arthan, when the sun rises no higher, and sinks no lower, they regarded the 'essence of the sun' to be traversing the druidic underworld, 'Annwn', and engaged in empathetic rituals of initiation for the young candidates into the 'mysteries of druidism'.

Then, at sunrise on December 22nd, as the sun began again it annual journey northwards to the instant of the Summer Solstice, which they termed Alban Hefyn, they celebrated the new-born sun, the son of the old sun - the "The Mabyn of the Mabynogion".

As can be gleaned from the poem of T. Llewelyn Williams above, and as was witnessed by him in 1977, and again in 2003 along with R. Cecil Hughes and John Michael, the sun at the time of the shortest day rises over 'Yr Aran' when viewed from one particular standing stone at Maesoglan. This is no coincidence, and indicates without doubt that the 'sacred landscapes' of the druids of Ynys Môn (Anglesey) were as astronomically descriptive of the druidic solar drama as the ritual landscapes described by Morien in ancient Morganwg. And Maesoglan was just one of the many sacred places in North Wales where these observations were made, and ritual initiations undertaken.

Owen Morgan's efforts at disentangling the 'oral traditions' of both Morganwg, and of Wales generally, have been ridiculed by orthodox historians who condemned him for his methodology in decoding the druidic library written in the landscape, and for his adoption of the druidic title, Morien, upon his succession as Archdruid of the Chair of Morganwg following the death of Myfyr Morganwg.

But these condemnations, which continue today, are invariably made by so-called 'experts' and 'scholars' who fail miserably to grasp the very simple concept of the 'landscape as narrative', who have never even attempted to read it, and who have never experienced the rising of the new-born sun at the sacred places of the ancient Welsh druids.

May their eyes be opened, before the the last vestiges of the Druidic Heritage of ancient Cymru (Wales) is lost forever amidst the rantings of those who can only condemn what they fail to understand ...

Alban Hefyn (Summer Solstice) 2003
Bryn Celli Ddu, Ynys Môn, North Wales

This is a photograph of the Alban Hefyn sunrise taken at Bryn Celli Ddu, Ynys Môn, North wales
copyright © June 21 2003 morien institute

books about the 'natural philosophy'
of those ancient
Welsh druids

"A Rattleskull Genius: The Many Faces of
Iolo Morganwg"

Geraint H. Jenkins

EU English Edition

"Iolo Morganwg is arguably the most extraordinary figure in the entire cultural history of Wales. Since his long and turbulent career unfolded against a backdrop of improvement, industrialization, evangelicalism, enlightenment and romanticism, it is not surprising that myriad Iolos emerged - the multi-gifted stonemason, the druidic bard, the labouring poet, the romantic myth-maker, the consummate forger, the political radical, the agricultural commentator, the apostle of anti-trinitarianism, and many others.

His life was riddled with apparent ironies, paradoxes and contradictions, and the aim of this stimulating volume is to re-evaluate his diverse interests and to celebrate the multifaceted achievements of a flawed but endlessly fascinating self-styled 'rattleskull genius'."

"Light of Britannia"
Owen Morien Morgan

EU English Edition

"Owen Morien Morgan wrote from about 1870 until his death in 1921 about the traditions of Welsh druidism, the remnants of which he gathered from the oral traditions still then to be found in the valleys of South Wales.

Many of these druidic traditions centred on the safe haven, Dinas, Rhondda, the ancient druid city to where some now believe the surviving druids fled after their massacre by the Romans on Ynys Môn (Anglesey)".

"The Mabyn of the

Owen Morien Morgan

EU English Edition Only
but available

"Morien was facinated by the local folklore of his native Morganwg, and seeing that the English language would soon follow the rapid industrialisation of the South Wales valleys, he set out to gather and study them.

In due course, and after comparing the local Welsh traditions to similar traditions of what he termed the 'annual solar drama' from around the classical world, he wrote that, of all those traditions, the Welsh druidic system had remained in purer form than any other he had encountered."

Morien's books contain the essence of druidic astro-mythology, and is the first works ever to study the druidic library extant in the ancient enchanted landscape of Wales - a landscape library which Morien showed how ro read as sacred 'narrative'."

"Awen: Quest of the
Celtic Mysteries"

Mike Harris

a book cover link direct to
EU English Edition

"Awen is a Welsh word often translated as 'inspiration'. However, in its fullness it is untranslatable as a single word, comprising as it does a kind of irradiation of the soul from paradisal origins.

In the end, our descriptions and our definitions must be rendered in poetic terms. Hence the importance of the Bard.

It was the Celtic bards who laid the foundation of inner wisdom that has come down to us as the Arthurian Tradition. It was Celtic bards who, leaving Wales and Cornwall for Brittany, and thence seeking service with Frankish lords, provided the tales that informed the Arthurian romancers of twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Chrtien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and others, wove them into tales of Merlin, Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere, the Lady of the Lake and the Questors of the Grail."

"Sun, Moon & Earth"
Robin Heath

an image/link direct to this product at
EU English Edition

"How do you encode ALL the Sun, Moon and Earth astronomical periodic constants in just TWO numbers? Interested? Try this beautiful new book by groundbreaking author Robin Heath. He also shows that the builders of Stonehenge may have known the answer too! Simple stuff once you are shown it. Amazing value. Recycled paper!"

"A Little History of

John Michell

an image/link direct to this product at
EU English Edition

a further selection of books about
Druids & Celtic Mythology


Were Megalithic Structures built as Cosmic Impact Early-Warning Systems?

The Pumpsaint Zodiac Temple - a Landscape Starchart in West Wales

The 6th Century A.D. Dragon/Comet and the European Dark Ages

Nora Chadwick and the Druids | T. D. Kendrick and the Druids

Barddas - the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain

The "Hanes Taliesin" - the Charlotte Guest translation

The "Hanes Taliesin" - the D. W. Nash translation

Stanton Drew - circles of wood before stone

Caer Sidi - the key to Druidic Astronomy


read Owen Morien Morgan's classics

"The Mabin of the Mabinogion"
"Light of Britannia"

the key to the ancient druidic astro-mythology


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