Beware: the Next Giant Asteroid Belt is Overdue
By Nicholas Rufford, The Sunday Times (Britain), July 23, 2000
A group of scientists known in government circles as "The X Files committee" has warned that the Earth is overdue for an asteroid strike serious enough to wipe out 10% of its population. Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, is studying the report by the Near Earth Objects Taskforce and is expected to announce its findings within days. It calls for international co-operation to track asteroids and comets likely to cross the Earth's orbit. The report says the risk of death is about the same as from an aircraft crash and similar to a terrestrial accident such as a nuclear reactor meltdown. Although strikes are rare, the damage inflicted by a single hit could be enormous. If an asteroid 1km wide landed in the Atlantic Ocean, it would destroy most European coastal cities and swamp parts of Britain in a tidal wave. If it struck land, it could kill millions and throw up a dust cloud that could create an artificial winter lasting years. An asteroid of that size is likely to hit Earth once every 100,000 years. According to the taskforce there has been no strike for at least that time.
Scientists at the government's atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston are devising ways to attack asteroids with nuclear weapons to deflect them. Britain is expected to collaborate with its European partners to devise a system whereby a series of warheads could be launched if necessary. Dr Nigel Holloway, a senior weapons scientist at Aldermaston who advised the taskforce, said there was growing acceptance in government of the need for countermeasures. "For a 1-2km asteroid you would use warheads equal to about 100,000 Hiroshimas," he said. "There are disadvantages of trying to do it with one big shot because some of these asteroids are rather fragile. What you don't want to end up with is buckshot, because you have no hope of deflecting that. So you make a device to 'flash' the asteroid on one side with an intense burst of neutron radiation and blow some of the surface off to achieve deflection." According to well-placed scientific sources, Nasa has already started investigating how to detonate such a nuclear warhead with a £150m "Near-Earth Asteroid" probe.
Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire, whose grandfather was an astronomer specialising in cosmic impacts, said: "It is not a question of whether an extinction-level event will occur, it is when. Each of us is 750 times more likely to be killed by an asteroid strike than to win the national lottery this weekend." A 50-metre-wide asteroid that exploded in the air above Siberia in 1908 destroyed vast areas of forest and caused a dust cloud 10km high that affected the climate for years. A similar event over central London could kill 7m people and lay waste to an area extending outwards as far as the M25. Dr Harry Atkinson, who chaired the taskforce, declined to comment on the findings. The warnings in the report are uncannily similar to the plots of two recent Hollywood films, Armageddon and Deep Impact. When he set up the committee, Sainsbury said: "We cannot ignore the risk, however remote, and a case can be made for monitoring the situation on an international basis."