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Tuesday, 1 January, 2002, 00:19 GMT
Asteroid impact centre site selected
Nasa graphic of catastrophic impact
A catastrophic impact is extremely unlikely
Image: Nasa/Don Davis

Britain's new centre to analyse the risk of an asteroid impact on Earth and inform the public will be at the National Space Science Centre in Leicester, Science Minister Lord Sainsbury has announced.

We are helping the UK play a full and prominent role in an area that requires international action

Lord Sainsbury
The government revealed its intention to open a near-Earth object (NEO) information centre in February 2001, as part of its response to a report by its task force on NEOs, and invited bids to run it.

There were other bids to run the centre, including one by Spaceguard UK, a Powys-based group which has spent years lobbying the government to take the threat of asteroid impacts more seriously.

The government says the new centre will open in Leicester by Easter 2002 and will share information with other sites, including the Spaceguard centre.

Pilot study

It will analyse the potential threat posed by NEOs and inform the public about asteroids and comets, it says.

"By setting up an information centre we are helping the UK play a full and prominent role in an area that requires international action," Lord Sainsbury said on Tuesday.

He also said that two telescopes on the Canary Islands had been identified as possible sites for NEO tracking.

A pilot study using the Isaac Newton telescope at La Palma will begin after February 2002, he said.

The announcement of the new centre was welcomed by Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP who has been a campaigner for more research.

"At last the government is making good Lord Sainsbury's commitment to put hard cash into this long campaigned for project," he told the Press Association.

He added that he wanted the National Space Science Centre to work with Spaceguard UK because the issue of asteroid collision was too important for one group to tackle alone.

Atmospheric protection

The government emphasises that the risk of a large asteroid impact in the near future is remote.

"There are currently no known large asteroids or comets whose orbit puts them on collision course with Earth.

"However, the potential for significant damage to the Earth and its environment does exist," it says, adding:

"The Earth's atmosphere protects against objects smaller than about 50 metres (160 feet) in diameter.

"Objects above 50 metres in diameter may survive passage through the atmosphere but will impact the Earth less than once every hundred years on average."

Near-Earth objects are asteroids or comets, believed to be remnants from the formation of the planets, whose orbits brings them close to the Earth.

Most asteroids are made of rock, while comets can be a mixture of rock, organic molecules and frozen gases.

One of the theories put forward to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is that they were wiped out by the catastrophic impact of a large asteroid.

See also:

28 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Spaceguard UK opens observatory
19 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
UK centre to study asteroid threat
09 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Lords call for better Earth defences
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