During my recent vacation I visited my old friend Nathan Myhrvold, and got a tour of his company’s lab near Bellevue. At that time he told me about what he had been working on recently, which has now appeared on the arXiv here, and is the subject of news stories today at the New York Times and Science magazine.
I confess I’ve never worried much about killer asteroids, but am glad that someone is doing this. Nathan has always pursued a wide range of different interests, and killer asteroids has evidently been one of them. I first heard from him a year or two ago about how he had gotten interested in the question of how to model the observability of such objects. Such modeling affects choices to be made about how to optimally search for these things (space-based or earth-based telescopes? what kind?). He wrote a paper last year about this, which was published in March.
What Nathan told me when I saw him was that he had found significant problems with the modeling done by the NEOWISE/WISE group at NASA, and you can now judge for yourself by reading his paper. I’m very far from being able to understand the details of this story well enough to judge who’s right here. I do know Nathan well enough to know that his work on this deserves to be taken very seriously, and would bet that he has identified real problems. As noted in the comments there, the reaction from one of the
NASA WISE people quoted at the end of the Science article wasn’t exactly confidence inspiring.
Update: There’s a press release about this out from NASA today, pretty much devoted to attacking Nathan’s work.
Update: For some specific criticisms of Nathan’s work, see the comment thread here. For a response to some of this from Nathan, see here.
Update: Scientific American has an article about this here.
Update: As pointed out by Wayt Gibbs in a comment, those interested in some discussion of the main point at issue might want to read the exchange here.