Asteroid centre to assess chances of fatal impact

The risk of an asteroid strike wiping out mankind will be investigated by a new British research centre, the Government announced today.

The risk of an asteroid strike wiping out mankind will be investigated by a new British research centre, the Government announced yesterday.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Science minister, believes public concern at the chances of annihilation have been heightened by recent Hollywood movies such as Deep Impact and Armageddon.

He hopes the National Aster-oid and Comet Information Centre will give accurate information on the risks of an impact. The centre's aim is to reassure the public that the chance of a repeat of the Earth being hit by an asteroid such as the one believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs is "very remote".

Museums and other public information bodies will be asked today to submit bids to run the centre. The Government will provide £250,000 to cover the cost of the centre during its first three years, after which it will have to be self-financing.

It must provide exhibitions, a website and data on the comparative risk of asteroid strikes, compared with other hazards, and the potential for damage if the Earth was hit. The announcement of the planned centre is the Government's first response to recommendations made last year by its Near Earth Object Task Force. Lord Sainsbury said: "There are currently no known large asteroids or comets whose orbit puts them on collision course with the Earth but, while the risk of being hit is very remote, potential for damage exists.

"I believe it is important that information on asteroids or comets is made available to the public and hope that organisations will be able to respond positively to our call for proposals."

The task force has made 14 recommendations on action needed to improve the Earth's security. Its proposals included fitting all European space probes with asteroid detectors, building a giant telescope dedicated to hunting these objects, and fitting existing telescopes with the latest asteroid detection software.

Jonathan Tate, director of Spaceguard UK, said if all the recommendations were implemented Britain would be the undisputed leader in the detection of near earth objects. "I am delighted by the announcement of the centre. My concern is that this will be a wonderful shop window but the shop will be empty if the other recommendations are not carried out. At present there are more people working in a standard Marks & Spencer store than detecting asteroids around the world."

However remote, the dangers of asteroids hitting the Earth are real. Many scientists believe an asteroid strike 65 million years ago was responsible for a worldwide climate change that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Space objects larger than 50 metres in diameter strike the Earth at least once or twice every century, with the latest recorded major asteroid impact occurring in Siberia in 1908, when thousands of square kilometres of forest were flattened.

Other big asteroids or fragments of comets struck Brazil in 1930 and eastern Russia in 1947. An unconfirmed asteroid is believed to have landed in the southern Pacific in 1974.

Scientists believe there are 100 million asteroids in space, with 1,400 objects greater than 1km in diameter having the potential to collide with Earth.

The Earth is also at risk of being hit by as many as 500,000 objects bigger than 200 to 500 metres across, the smaller having the capacity to destroy an area the size of Ireland while the largest could wipe out an entire continent.

Astronomers admit there are likely to be many more objects on collision courses that have not yet been discovered.

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