Source: The Mercury, 12 November, 1996, p.15
London SCIENTISTS meet today to discuss the threat posed by an asteroid hitting Earth amid claims that the British government has failed to wake up to the risk and hasn't supported an Australian early warning project. Experts believe the chances of being killed by an asteroid impact is four times higher than that of dying in a plane crash. An asteroid less than a kilometre across smashing into Earth at 32 kms per second would cause an ex- plosion equivalent to more than 1000 of the most power- ful hydrogen bombs yet deton- ated. Scientists have taken the danger seriously and have set up observation teams to watch for Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs). But the early warning post set up in 1990 to cover the southern hemisphere, the Anglo-Australian Near Earth Asteroid Survey, is under threat because funding runs out at the end of the year. Dr Duncan Steel, who runs the observatory at Siding Spring in Australia, said no new funding had been offered by the British side of the partnership. Scientists will meet at the London headquarters of the British National Space Centre today to discuss the problem and the role Britain should be playing.
Steel said the British Govern- ment was "working from a position of profound ignorance" and did not under-stand the danger. He said: "Yes, people die monthly in plane crashes, but the numbers are thankfully small compared with the billions who would die in a major cosmic impact. "The probability of an aster- oid or comet impact is small, but the consequences are hor- rendous. "People like to imagine that there are battalions of astron- omers scouring the skies - there aren't. If a half-mile asteroid is due to hit us next week, you can expect six seconds warning. When it enters the atmos- phere it will light up like a thousand suns. By the time you've turned to look at it, it will have struck the ground releasing energy equivalent to 10 million times the Hiroshima bomb. Then it's goodbye." Steel said Dr Tom Gehrels leader of America's Spacewatch program, which is tracking NEAs in the north- ern sky, had also identified the closure of the Australian project as a major backward step, and had written to British scientists and other interested parties. He added that Dr Edward Teller, the distinguished American scientist and father of the hydrogen bomb, had written to British Prime Minister John Major and Australian Prime Minister John Howard expressing concern over the lack of international action. PA
Where to next?
Student Questions for this article
Teacher Discussion of this article
Index - Related articles
Index - Chance and Basic Probability
Numeracy in the News - Main Index