Beware, the end of the world is nearly nigh

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The end of the world is nigh. But don't tear up the life insurance policy - for it will not happen for at least another 1,140,000 years.

Around about then, according to calculations by an Italian mathematician, the asteroid Eros, which is safely in the ambit of the planet Mars, will swing out of its orbit and crash into the Earth. Such specific predictions are unknown in science, being conventionally regarded as the province of theologians and soothsayers.

Since Eros is twice the size and about 10 times as heavy as the extra- terrestrial projectile which is now thought to have done for the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, the impact of this asteroid - 22 kilometres in diameter - would probably extinguish almost all life on the planet.

Paolo Farinella, a mathematician at the University of Pisa, and two French astronomers report their findings in today's issue of the scientific journal Nature.

The researchers started off by carefully examining the parameters of Eros's path. They then ran simulations on computer of how it might evolve over the coming millennia.

They discovered "an orbital resonance with Mars" - essentially an interaction between the gravity of Mars and Eros itself - which was capable of diverting the asteroid from its Mars-crossing path on to an Earth-crossing path.

The researchers write that their computer calculations show that over a period of 2 million years, "Of eight trial orbits that closely match Eros's present orbital parameters, three become Earth-crossing on the time-scale of our simulations, and one of these hits the Earth after 1.14 million years."

But they stress that the orbits of small planetoids such as Eros are very "chaotic". This does not mean that they are incalculable, but that reliable predictions over long times depend on measuring their positions to an unattainable degree of accuracy. To cope with that, the researchers have calculated the likelihood of a collision and found, perhaps reassuringly, that although 1.14 million years is certainly possible, the timescale is more likely to be about 100 million years.

Until now conventional scientific thinking has been that the end of the world is three or four billion years away when the sun will have expanded enough to swallow us up.

Five dates when the Apocalypse was predicted

1033: Thousandth anniversary of the Crucifixion, as was then believed. In Northern France and Germany there was real expectation that Jesus would return to reign in glory.

1534-35: The Anabaptists of Munster, Germany, launched a reign of terror in the imminent expectation of Christ's second coming.

1842: American William Miller said after studying the Old Testament that the world would end in October 1842, later known among his followers as 'the great disappointment'.

1914: The Millerite movement, later Jehovah's Witnesses, believed that the Bible predicted the end of the world in 1914.

2000: Evangelical protestants are convinced that the world will really end this time. Exact dates no longer fashionable, but millions of pentecostals say we are living in the end-times.