Source: The Mercury, 12 November, 1996, p.15


Oz early
asteroid
alert at risk
of crashing

   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.

Ignorance

   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


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