Saturday, 26 April 2014 | MYT 5:25 PM

Astronaut warns: 'Asteroid hits Earth' catastrophe not so far-fetched at all

The chance of a city-killing asteroid striking Earth is higher than scientists previously believed, according to a non-profit group of asteroid hunters led by an ex-astronaut.

A global network that listens for nuclear weapons detonations detected 26 asteroids that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere from 2000 to 2013, data collected by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation shows. The explosions include the February 15, 2013 impact over Chelyabinsk, Russia, which left more than 1,000 people injured by flying glass and debris.

“There is a popular misconception that asteroid impacts are extraordinarily rare – that’s incorrect,” says former astronaut Ed Lu, who heads the California-based B612 Foundation. Asteroids as small as 40m – less than half the size of an American football field – have the potential to level a city, he adds. “Picture a large apartment building – moving at Mach 50,” Lu says.

Mach 50 is 50 times the speed of sound, or roughly 17km per second.

An artist's depiction of an asteroid breaching Earth's atmosphere. A post-impact depiction won't be as pretty. 

Like this but much bigger: A fragment believed to be from a meteorite that crashed in the Yetkulski region outside the Urals city of Chelyabinsk. – Reuters

NASA already has a programme in place that tracks asteroids larger than 1km. An object of this size, roughly equivalent to a small mountain, would have global consequences if it struck Earth. An asteroid about 9.7km in diameter hit Earth some 65 million years ago, triggering climate changes believed to have caused the dinosaurs – and most other life on Earth at the time – to die off.

“Chelyabinsk taught us that even 20m asteroids can have substantial effect,” Lu says.

City-killer asteroids are forecast to strike once every 100 years, but the prediction isn't based on hard evidence. B612 intends to address that issue with a privately funded, infrared space telescope called Sentinel that will be tasked to find potentially dangerous asteroids near Earth. The telescope, which costs US$250mil (RM818mil), is scheduled to launch in 2018.

B612 takes its name from the fictional planet in the book The Little Prince, by French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery. – Reuters 

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Lifestyle , Features , Science , Astronomy , asteroid , impact , catastrophe , possibility , higher , estimate , US , California , B612 Foundation , Ed Lu , NASA , astronaut , Sentinel


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