EARTH is at “very high risk” of being hit by an asteroid large enough to have a “devastating” effect on humanity.
That’s the ominous warning from the European Space Agency, which has spoken out to mark International Asteroid Day.
“Sooner or later we will get… a minor or major impact,” warned Rolf Densing, head of the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.
He said “the risk that Earth will get hit in a devastating event one day is very high”, although this might not happen in our lifetime.
The space expert said our species is “not ready to defend ourselves” against an Earth-bound object.
“We have no active planetary defence measures,” he added.
Scientists have dreamed up several ideas about how we could defend the planet against incoming asteroids, which could be blown apart with nukes, vaporised with lasers and bumped off course by a “space tractor”.
But first, we need to be able to spot the threat.
Astrophysicists monitoring the risk classify objects into sizes ranging from a few millimetres to behemoths of more than 6 miles wide – the size of the rock that wiped out dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
The smallest type enter Earth’s atmosphere daily, burning up prettily as shooting stars.
The largest occur once every 100 million years, and the next impact could spell doom for human civilisation.
So far, experts have managed to list more than 90 per cent of asteroids in the dino-killing range and determined that none poses an immediate threat.
A much bigger concern is the whereabouts of millions of asteroids in the 15- to 140-metre (49- to 460-feet) range.
One such object, a 40-metre space rock, caused the largest impact in recent history when it exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, on June 30, 1908 – the date on which Asteroid Day is marked.
The blast flattened some 80 million trees over 2,000 sparsely-populated square kilometres (772 square miles) – an area bigger than Greater London.
Tunguska-sized events happen, on average, every 300 years or so.
“Imagine that this type of asteroid would fall in a very populated area like… Paris or Germany, I mean this is something that would be really, really a catastrophe,” said Nicolas Bobrinsky, programme manager of the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness project, which surveys asteroids.
The Chelyabinsk impact in 2013 is a terrifying example of a space rock which caught us off guard.
A 20-metre-wide asteroid blew up in the atmosphere of central Russia with the force of 27 Hiroshima bombs, causing a shockwave which blew out the windows of nearly 5,000 buildings and injured more than 1,200 people.
“Now that we have discovered most of the (asteroids) that are about a kilometre in size and larger, the goal is to discover most of the ones which are (up to) about 140 metres [in diameter],” said Patrick Michel, an astrophysicist with France’s CNRS research institute.
“This is the threshold – if an object of this size impacts the Earth – for regional damage at the scale of a country or a continent.”
Europe is setting up a network of telescopes to serve as an early warning system.
Scheduled for completion in about two years, it “will scan systematically the sky every night and any asteroid which is coming… would be detected with a warning time of approximately two to three weeks,” said Bobrinsky.
This is admittedly “not much, but it’s better than what we have now,” he added.
At the very least, it would allow for cities to be evacuated, or a shockwave warning to be issued.
“Contrary to all other natural risks that we face on Earth like tsunamis, earthquakes and things like that, this is the only one that we can predict,” Michel said.
What is needed is cooperation between politicians and space agencies – and especially money.
An asteroid deflection system would require “something in the order of 300-400 million euros” (dollars), according to Bobrinsky — a minuscule amount compared to the cost of disaster.
The United Nations declared June 30 International Asteroid Day to raise public awareness about what event organisers describe as “humanity’s greatest challenge”.
Nasa recently spotted FIVE asteroids set to make ominously “close approaches” to Earth this year – with the first due to zoom by in July.
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