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Sue Nelson reports for BBC News
"Giant craters bear witness to astronomical impacts"
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Sir Crispin Tickell
"One purpose of the task force is to identify what is coming towards us. "
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Lord Sainsbury, Science Minister
"The essential thing is to have a monitoring system in place"
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Tuesday, 4 January, 2000, 13:47 GMT
Taskforce tackles asteroid threat

A Nasa simulation of an asteroid impact on Earth

An expert taskforce to assess the threat of an asteroid strike on Earth has been appointed by the UK government.

The men who will examine the risk of the Earth being destroyed by an object from outer space were named on Tuesday.

The task force will be chaired by Dr Harry Atkinson, past chairman of the European Space Agency's Council. The other members will be environmentalist and former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell and Professor David Williams.

Welsh MP Lembit Opik, who first suggested setting up a body to monitor the threat, warned in the Commons in March that the risk of being killed by an asteroid was 750 times higher than winning the National Lottery.

This is not something that people should lie awake at night worrying about but we cannot ignore the risk, however remote
Lord Sainsbury
The Montgomery Liberal Democrat MP met Lord Sainsbury in July, urging him to set up a body to examine the possibility of objects from space striking the Earth.

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury has now asked the three-man team to look at the potential for risk posed by asteroids and comets - termed "near-Earth objects".

The team will make proposals to the British National Space Centre on the nature of the hazard and will consider how the UK should best contribute to international effort to prevent a strike.

Blasts from the past
66m years ago: Six-mile wide asteroid hits Mexico, causing global destruction
50,000 ya: Asteroid strikes Arizona with the force of a 15 megaton nuclear bomb
June 1908: Meteor impacts on Siberia, 770 square miles of forest destroyed
October 1992, football-sized space rock destroys a car in New York
[Source: National Geographic]
Announcing the members of the task force, Lord Sainsbury said: "The risk of an asteroid or comet causing substantial damage is extremely remote.

"We cannot ignore the risk, however remote, and a case can be made for monitoring the situation on an international basis.

"I hope that the setting up of this task force will help the UK play a full and prominent role in international discussions on this important issue."

He said he was "delighted to be able to announce such a well-qualified team of experts", adding that he looked forward to receiving their report by the middle of 2000.

Sir Crispin Tickell said: "One of the purposes of the taskforce is to put together the evidence to identify what is coming towards us.

"Last year, an object passed between the Moon and Earth which, if it had hit us, would have done a lot of damage."

Asteroids can devastate the Earth
Many near-Earth objects have been identified and their orbits determined using ground-based telescopes in a number of countries, although many are yet to be surveyed.

Of those known, none is believed to pose a significant risk to the Earth in the foreseeable future, according to the Department of Trade and Industry.

However, on a time-scale of many millions of years, the Earth has been hit by objects of sufficient size to cause serious damage.

These include the object which is thought to have hit the Earth about 65 million years ago, and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

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See also:
04 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
Saving the world from asteroids
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Small but deadly comets identified
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Close shave with asteroid
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Spacecraft fails to keep eye on job
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Exploring century's greatest explosion
23 Jul 99 |  Sci/Tech
Asteroid impact scale endorsed
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