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Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Release No.: 00-06

For Release: Immediate: February 8, 2000

Early Alert on Comets and Asteroids Gets Even Faster


CAMBRIDGE, MA -- Anxious astronomers, uncertain whether to run for cover or to tool up their telescopes, now at least will get their needed answers faster, thanks to a new high-speed computer at the world's asteroid and comet early-alert center.

A grant from the Tamkin Foundation of Los Angeles, CA, has permitted the creation of a high-speed computer network for the Minor Planet Center, the international clearing house for astronomical information based at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), that will allow more rapid determination of the paths of newly discovered asteroids and comets, including those on possible crash courses with Earth.

The Minor Planet Center, operated for the International Astronomical Union, serves the world scientific community by collecting, checking, and disseminating positional observations and orbital data for asteroids and comets. Tracking many thousands of objects simultaneously, the Center distributes initial and updated data by means of the Minor Planet Electronic Circulars (issued via email several times a day) and monthly consolidations of the data in the printed Minor Planet Circulars. The new "Tamkin Foundation Computing Network" will greatly enhance the level of service the Center can provide to astronomers around the world.

Steven M. Tamkin, Executive Vice-President, presented his family foundation's contribution to Irwin I. Shapiro, Director of SAO, at an informal ceremony in Cambridge recently.

An amateur astronomer with a deep interest in near-Earth asteroids and other objects with the potential to collide with the Earth, Mr. Tamkin noted that "This is the Foundation's first investment in nonmedical scientific research, and we look forward to a long and fruitful partnership in supporting the Center's work."

The combination of observational and computational research is vital in astronomy, according to Brian Marsden, the Director of the Center and Associate Director of SAO's Planetary Sciences Division. "During the past few years new technology has completely revolutionized the way astronomers make their observations," says Marsden.

"At numerous observatories around the world, computer programs examine an electronic image of the sky, immediately reduce the data for each asteroid or comet to a string of numbers, and then communicate those numbers to us at the Minor Planet Center," he says.

"Our computer programs automatically establish which observations belong to the same asteroid or comet and make successive improvements to the orbital solutions that are then added to the database used to identify further observations," Marsden explains. "It is very rewarding for us that the Tamkin Foundation will support the computing technology that is integral to this kind of research."

The Minor Planet center currently keeps tabs on the orbits of some 57,000 asteroids and 1,050 comets. In 1999 alone, there have so far been 25,000 new asteroids and 60 comets discovered.

In his thanks, SAO Director Irwin Shapiro praised the Tamkin Foundation's willingness to branch out into new areas of scientific inquiry. -- END --

Photos of the grant presentation ceremony are at:

For more information, contact:

Dr. Brian Marsden, 617-495-7244,
Ms. Amanda Preston, 617-495-7321,

Mr. Steven Tamkin, Executive Vice President, The Tamkin Family Foundation,
2100 Sawtelle Blvd., Suite 201, Los Angeles, CA 90025-6237, 310-457-4946,

For additional information on the Minor Planet Center:

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