Israel joins the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with the task of identifying 90% of celestial bodies larger than one kilometer in diameter by 2008.About 65 million years ago, the collision of an asteroid about 10 kilometers in diameter with the Earth was apparently responsible for a thick layer of dust that killed off the dinosaurs, along with most life forms then in existence. Among the residue from the collision are “Near Earth Objects” (NEOs) – space objects liable to collide with our planet and cause immense damage some day.

Israel has now joined international space researchers who are keeping a lookout for NEOs and other further potentially dangerous fallout from the collision. The Israeli Knowledge Center on Celestial Bodies Threatening the Earth was recently established at Tel Aviv University recently, with Dr. Noah Brosch, director of the university’s Wise Observatory, as its director.

The Israel Space Agency chose TAU and scientists from its academic staff to create and operate the national knowledge center on NEOs. The NEO center is a collaboration among the university’s department of astronomy and astrophysics, the department of geophysics and planetary sciences, and the school of education.

Apart from the major planets, the solar system contains a population of small bodies called “minor planets” (asteroids) and comets. The International Astronomical Union collects information about more than 60,000 such bodies. Most of them orbit between Mars and Jupiter, while the comets reach father away. About 500 small bodies are known to approach rather close to Earth and, in rare cases, could collide with it. The danger of such impacts is now known to the scientists and to various governmental agencies.

The U.S. Congress charged the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with identifying 90% of such celestial bodies larger than one kilometer in diameter by 2008. Other countries initiated similar programs and now, with the establishment of the new knowledge center, Israel has joined the global effort.

The center’s activities include observations from the Wise Observatory and others to detect new NEOs and follow-up known objects, as well as the organization of educational events for the general public. The first operational phase includes observations with the existing one-meter telescope. The second phase will see the introduction of an additional telescope to search for new asteroids and follow them automatically. The members of the knowledge center encourage cooperative efforts with amateur astronomers and the education system.