Comet Discoverers Protest Against Santos’ Gasfield Aspirations in North West NSW
As comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) passes Mars this Sunday the 19th of October 2014, comet discoverers with current or previous involvement with the Siding Spring Observatory (SSO) are concerned about the future of the Observatory. The viability of the SSO near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia, is threatened due to the intention of Santos Ltd. to develop industrial scale Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining in the region.
The effect of light pollution from gas flaring and security and operational lighting, in addition to airborne dust and industrial contaminants, could threaten the dark sky status of Australia’s largest optical observatory complex. The SSO complex is home to many Australian and International telescopes. Dust and pollutants in the atmosphere increase reflected light and can have a detrimental effect on telescope optics.
The current comet is being observed not only from Earth but by 16 NASA telescopes and Mars rovers. Billions of dollars of investment in Mars missions was potentially threatened by the comet’s dust but actions have been taken to minimise any threat.
“It’s only because of the early discovery of this comet from SSO that almost 2 years of advance planning for this weekend’s encounter with Mars was possible,” said astronomer Robert McNaught.
McNaught, the comet’s discoverer, worked at SSO for 30 years. With 82 comet discoveries bearing his name, McNaught has almost three times as many comet discoveries as the second most prolific discoverer of all time.
The SSO is the second most successful comet discovery location on the Earth, after the LINEAR project in New Mexico, USA.
“To put at risk the world class status of Siding Spring Observatory is both illogical and galling.
“It’s also infuriating that community concerns are being trampled upon by both government and industry,” he said.
There is an overwhelming consensus (92%) in the local community against the expansion of the CSG industry into the area for reasons in addition to its potential impact on the SSO. Residents are concerned about water quality and health issues. They do not have confidence that mining companies or government bodies will openly disclose potential and actual threats from their activities. In fact, the vast majority of communities in NSW return survey results with >90% opposition to the CSG industry. See this media release and short video to hear from Timor Valley residents (including resident astronomers) themselves about why they declared their valley Gasfield Free.
Comet discoverers in front of the Mars sign on the road to Siding Spring Observatory. Photo: Rob McNaught & Gordon Garradd
Side photo (from left to right) shows comet discoverers Steve Lee, Donna Burton, Trish Watson (nee McKenzie), Robert McNaught (discoverer of comet Siding Spring), Malcolm Hartley and Gordon Garradd (inserted) at the Mars sign near the access road to Siding Spring Observatory.
All have worked at the SSO and are amongst the most prolific comet discoverers of all time. Gordon Garradd lives 180 km to the east, near Tamworth, but worked on the Siding Spring Survey, searching for Earth-threatening asteroids or comets.
The other five discoverers live in the Timor Valley near the SSO, between the Mars and Jupiter signs! Ironically, of the 125 comets discovered by these astronomers, only Gordon has found a rare main-belt comet (259P/Garradd), which resides totally amongst the main-belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Malcolm Hartley discovered comet P/103 Hartley from Siding Spring in 1986. Twenty four years later, in 2010, it was visited and studied by the EPOXI spacecraft.
Great comet McNaught (C/2006 P1), the brightest comet since 1965, was discovered by Robert McNaught in August 2006 from Siding Spring. In the southern hemisphere during January 2007, it became a spectacular sight to the naked eye in the evening sky.
Main photo shows Malcolm Hartley and Robert McNaught protesting against “Gas Giant”, Santos Ltd, at the Jupiter sign.