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Wednesday, March 3, 1999 Published at 21:54 GMT

UK Politics

'Invest to avert armageddon'

Asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago

The Earth is due to be struck by a giant asteroid capable of wiping out the entire human race, a Liberal Democrat MP has warned.

Lembit Opik: "Asteroids hit earth every 30m years - the last one was 65m years ago"
Lembit Opik is urging the government to invest £1m a year in tracking space rocks to avert catastrophe.

He told BBC News Online: "I'm calling on the government to take seriously the prospect of asteroid or cometary impact with the Earth.

"Now that's got a pretty high giggle factor, it makes me sound like one of those millennium soothsayers, a Nostradamus of Parliament, but actually it's a very serious threat.

[ image: Lembit Opik: Denies the campaign is a bid to become Lib Dem leader]
Lembit Opik: Denies the campaign is a bid to become Lib Dem leader
"We know that the dinosaurs were extinguished by a very big global killer that hit us about 65 million years ago and we're due for another one now."

Mr Opik said the cost of tracking asteroids to the international community as a whole would be about £70m over the next decade.

The UK should invest between £500,000 and £1m annually towards this, he said.

"It's a good investment really because for that small investment not only do we get peace of mind but we can quite literally avert armageddon."

Lembit Opik: "I'm known as the Nostradamus of Westminster"
The MP raised the issue in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening.

"At the end of the day, if we don't act on it, something could come out of the Sun and wipe us out, quite literally," he said.

The government later said it would look closely at any further proposals to extend its work in the area with the European Space Agency and the United Nations.

[ image: John Battle:
John Battle: "The government is taking the issue seriously"
Energy Minister John Battle said: "I wish to congratulate Lembit Opik for taking the opportunity to raise this important subject on the floor of the House.

"The risks of earth being hit by a large near earth body during the lifetime of anyone alive now are extremely remote. But such objects are a reality which we must take seriously."

Mr Opik said his campaign was not connected to the rash of apocalyptic predictions surrounding the year 2000.

"I can assure the public this is neither my attempt to campaign for the millennium nor my strange and obscure way to become leader of the Liberal Democrats.

"This is my genuine interest in the science and the astronomy and ultimately the future of our species."

His fascination with the issue stems from family tradition.

"My grandfather was an astronomer and he worked in just this field. In fact, he predicted the dangers of an asteroid impact 70 years ago.

"They named an asteroid after him - Opik's asteroid.

"I'm relieved to say that we know where Opik's asteroid is, it's tucked up nice and safe in the asteroid belt."

But other space rocks are not so far away and statistically the Earth's population has reason for concern.

"These global killers seem to hit about once every 30 million years.

"What's worrying is that the last one impacted 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. I'm sorry to say that we're next in line for extinction.

"The dinosaurs were wiped out by a massive global killer, but a quarter of the Earth's population could be wiped out every 100,000 years when a one kilometre object hits.

"If we saw an asteroid hurtling towards us then I'm sorry to say all we could do is pray. But we would get 20 seconds and that's not even long enough for the Lord's Prayer.

"If we make this investment then we would get anything from two years notice of an impending impact and that's long enough to divert the object."

This might involve exploding a nuclear device or towing the asteroid out of the harm's way, he said.

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