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Distinguished NASA scientist to present public talk

James Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor
(217) 244-1073; kloeppel@illinois.edu

10/13/2003

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — David Morrison, a senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute, will present the sixth talk in the department of astronomy’s Icko Iben Jr. Distinguished Lectureship at 4 p.m. Nov. 5 in Foellinger Auditorium, 709 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana. The talk, "Cosmic Collisions: How Astronomers are Saving the World," is free and open to the public.

"David Morrison is internationally known for his research on small bodies in the solar system," said Lewis Snyder, the chair of the astronomy department. "His talk on identifying and avoiding asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth should be of interest to faculty, students and the general public."

While the probability of an impact from an asteroid or comet (often called Near Earth Objects) is low, the potential for destruction is immense. "The consequences are so catastrophic, we must evaluate the nature of the threat and be prepared to deal with it," Morrison said. "If such an object were to strike Earth, the effects of the collision could depress global temperatures, leading to a massive loss of food crops and the possible breakdown of society… potentially affecting the entire planet and its population."

One possible way of avoiding a collision, he said, involves intercepting the object while it is still far from Earth and detonating a nuclear warhead above the object’s surface, forcing it to change direction.

Morrison chaired the original NASA study of the impact hazard in 1992. He also served as chair of the International Astronomical Union Working Group on Near Earth Objects. Asteroid 2410 Morrison is named in his honor.

A native of Danville, Ill., Morrison earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University. Before joining the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, he was a professor of astronomy at the University of Hawaii. From 1996-2001, he was the Director of Astrobiology and Space Research at the NASA Ames Research Center, where he managed basic and applied research programs in the space, life and Earth sciences.

Morrison is the author of more than 130 technical papers and a dozen books. He is the recipient of the Dryden Medal for research from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and of the Klumpke-Roberts award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for contributions to science education. He also has received two NASA Outstanding Leadership medals, for contributions to the Galileo Mission and for dealing with the hazard of asteroid and comet impacts.

Morrison was instrumental in defining the new multidisciplinary field of astrobiology, including leadership in establishing the scientific goals and objectives of the NASA Astrobiology Roadmap. His primary current interests are in developing the science of astrobiology, in protecting Earth from an asteroid impact, and in improving science education and public understanding.

Each year the Iben lectureship brings a noted astronomer to campus to highlight some of the latest developments in astronomy, Snyder said. In addition to giving a public lecture, the invited speaker also will give a technical colloquium and meet informally with faculty members and students.