SPACE : ASTEROID COLLISION WITH EARTH A FIRM POSSIBILITY

As scientists debate whether it was a giant asteroid which extinguished the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, new data leads astro-physicists to a shocking discovery – there is a distinct possibility that the Earth could again be hit by asteroids like the one that landed in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908. As Hollywood makes “Impact” films, astronomers in the USA and in the UK start to become nervous as increased telescope technology proves that Mankind’s worst fears are no longer a distant improbability. Recently British astronomers announced that in late September a huge asteroid crossed Earth’s orbit at a distance of 4 million kilometres, which in astronomical terms is tiny. Now they calculate that in 2027, an asteroid measuring a kilometre in diameter, travelling at a speed of 80 kilometres per second, known as 1999AN10, will come within just 320,000 kilometres of the Earth, before returning several times...and it is not known how close it will come during its subsequent orbits. An asteroid that size and travelling at that speed would destroy most life forms on Earth but would be smaller than that which is supposed to have annihilated the dinosaurs (9.5 km. in diameter). An indication of how serious the risk is, is the reaction of the international community. NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an official US government organism, plans to be able to track all asteroids with a diameter of 1 km. by 2006. Japan is in the process of setting up a space observation programme also with the intention of detecting asteroids and Great Britain intends to spend 25 million pounds on Spaceguard, a protective shield of telescopes which, it is hoped, would be able to see asteroids or comets decades before they hit the Earth. It is the high-profile level of the British commission starting this project that attracts the attention : Lord Sainsbury, the British Science Minister, Sir Crispin Tickell, former British Ambassador to the United Nations and Professor Harry Atkinson, who has worked for the European Space agency, among other international projects. A British government official stated : “We accept there is a risk and we want Britain to take a leading role in dealing with it.” It is planned that any space object detected to be on a collision course with the Earth would be monitored for many years before a space vessel would be sent to intercept it with a nuclear device. A nuclear bomb detonated within several hundred metres of the object would be sufficient to significantly change its trajectory.

Timothy BANCROFT-HINCHEY Correspondent of PRAVDA.Ru Lissabon