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The BBC's Paul Anstiss
"It's been estimated an impact could kill 1.5billion people"
 real 56k

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury
"There are enormous numbers of asteroids and comets out there"
 real 56k

Saturday, 24 February, 2001, 11:08 GMT
UK targets asteroid threat
Artist's impression of asteroid strike
A meteor strike is blamed for wiping out the dinosaurs
Britain is to take a leading role in an international effort to defend the Earth against a catastrophic collision with an asteroid or comet.

Many academics believe the dinosaurs were wiped out by a massive meteor strike and admit it is possible it could happen again.

The potential threat of asteroids and other Near Earth Objects is an international problem

Lord Sainsbury
Science minister
Science Minister Lord Sainsbury has announced measures to tackle the threat from Near Earth Objects (Neos), asteroids or comets with orbits that bring them close to Earth.

The plans follow the report of the Near Earth Object Task Force last year, which identified a number of areas in which the UK could spearhead any defence programme.

A review will look at how UK telescopes can monitor Neos, while a specialist facility will be set up to provide information.

Asteroid forum

There are also plans for the European Space Agency, and possibly the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to hold meetings of "decision makers" this year to discuss the danger.

Other measures being considered are plans to evacuate areas that could be hit by smaller objects and for international research into methods to divert objects away from Earth.

Everything from nuclear bombs to huge cosmic bin bags is on the table to avert the risk

Lembit Opik MP
The theme of asteroid and comet collision has been a staple of science fiction movies such as Deep Impact and Armageddon, but last year's report insisted that, though remote, the risk of a catastrophic collision had to be addressed.

The Neos are believed to be the remnants from the formation of planets.

The Earth's atmosphere protects against most Neos smaller than about 50m but larger objects can penetrate.

Fortunately, objects in excess of 50m in diameter are unlikely to hit the Earth more than once a century.

Vital technology

The authors of the report pointed to Britain's strong astronomy track record, suitable telescope facilities, and ability to produce vital technology such as imaging chips.

Lord Sainsbury said: "The potential threat of asteroids and other Near Earth Objects to our planet is an international problem requiring international action.

"The UK through the measures announced can play an important part in how the international community tackles this potential problem."

Monitoring programme

The minister told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We will be going ahead with the monitoring programme and putting into place facilities to communicate with the public on what the situation is.

"Clearly, if it is not a large [object], there is always a possibility of moving people from the area it is going to hit on the Earth and we do potentially have the opportunity to deflect it."

Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, who launched a campaign in March 1999 to have the asteroid danger taken seriously, welcomed the government announcement.

He said: "We must look at the practicalities of implementation. How do we track the objects? How can we divert them?

"Everything from nuclear bombs to huge cosmic bin bags is on the table to avert the risk."

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See also:

04 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Scientists revise asteroid warning
09 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
Giant trilobite discovered
18 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Call for asteroid defences
04 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Saving the world from asteroids
01 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Rock's fleeting visit
19 May 99 | Sci/Tech
Close shave with asteroid
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