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Monday, 15 July, 2002, 01:01 GMT 02:01 UK
Asteroids 'could trigger nuclear war'
Asteroid heading for Earth
Experts say asteroid information should be shared
A small asteroid could accidentally trigger a nuclear war if mistaken for a missile strike, experts have warned.

Indian soldier stands next to an Indian nuclear missile
An asteroid explosion over India or Pakistan could unleash nuclear war
Scientists and military chiefs studying the threat are calling for a global warning centre to be set up to inform governments immediately of asteroid impacts.

The risk is seen as particularly grave if an asteroid blast were to happen in areas of military tension, such as over nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan

Each year about 30 asteroids several metres in length pierce the atmosphere and explode, with even the smaller sized ones unleashing as much energy as the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in Japan.

'Panic' reaction

Earlier this month, an Israeli pilot flying an airliner over the Ukraine reported seeing a blue flash in the sky similar to the type of blast caused by a surface-to-air missile, despite Ukrainian authorities saying no such missile had been fired.

Experts now believe the pilot saw an explosion caused by an asteroid entering the Earth's atmosphere at high speed.

Experts met last week in the US capital Washington DC to discuss what might have happened had such an explosion occurred over a volatile area such as the India-Pakistan region.

"Neither of those nations has the sophisticated sensors we do that can determine the difference between a natural Neo (near-Earth object) impact and a nuclear detonation," Air Force Brigadier General Simon Worden from the US Space Command told the Aerospace Daily newspaper.

"The resulting panic in the nuclear-armed and hair-trigger militaries there could have been the spark for a nuclear war."

Warning centre call

The incident over Ukraine was also extremely politically sensitive.

Last year, 78 people died when a Russian airliner flying from Israel was hit over Ukraine by what was believed to have been a stray missile fired during a military exercise.

Although the US has its own sophisticated military satellites which can detect launches and detonations of weapons and asteroid explosions, General Worden said that he and other experts would like to see a new warning centre established which would gather information on asteroid explosions and make it available to all governments.

It is hoped that the shared information would prevent a disaster occurring, and a study looking at the possibility of such a centre is now reportedly being developed in the US Defense Department.

See also:

27 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
20 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
18 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
05 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
11 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
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