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Lord Sainsbury
An international approach is needed
 real 28k

Professor Mark Bailey
The hazard is unbounded
 real 28k

Monday, 29 November, 1999, 16:06 GMT
Government prepares for space impact
rock 'Asteroids and comets pose a unique hazard to civilisation'

The UK government is to establish a panel of experts to advise on the risk of the Earth being hit by an asteroid or comet.

Reactions to such a potential disaster could involve using nuclear weapons to deflect the lump of space rock, or evacuating whole areas where it could strike.

Lord Sainsbury: "If ever there is a case to have international action, this is it"
Professor Mark Bailey, Director of the Armagh Observatory, has campaigned for the establishment of a national centre and told the BBC: "Asteroids and comets pose a unique hazard to civilisation - it is unbounded in the sense that the potential risk is destruction, even extinction of our species.

"However, it is predictable with high precision and years ahead, provided you discover the objects," he added.

Science Minister Lord Sainsbury wants to establish a position on the possibility of a large object hitting the UK in order to co-ordinate an international approach.

He said: "We need to have a position in terms of international discussions on this and I've put together a team of people to advise me on that.

"It would be absurd for each country to have programmes like this on their own. If ever there is a case to have international action, this is it."

Space-borne fragments the size of sand constantly bombard the Earth and present little hazard except to orbiting satellites. Objects the size of a small car will hit the planet a few times a year. Scientists calculate that an asteroid bigger than a mile (1.6 km) across might hit once every 100,000 to one million years.

Torino Scale

Astronomers are getting much better at finding and tracking the larger objects, which they sometimes refer to as near-Earth objects (NEOs). The International Astronomical Union (IAU) recently adopted a special scale to quantify the risks of such an NEO hitting the Earth. It is called the Torino Impact Hazard Scale and runs from zero to 10.

If a large NEO were to threaten the planet, our approach to the problem would depend on the object's size, Lord Sainsbury said.

Asked whether this would involve nuclear weapons, he responded: "In some cases it might just be a question of evacuating the area where it took place.

Rock The scale of any problem requires an international response
"In others, if it was a very large object, one might seek to deflect it.

"Either way, it's clearly very sensible to have as much time as possible to devise any plans and that's why it seems to me sensible that there should be international effort to monitor these objects.

"There are already programmes in other countries, America already has a substantial programme and I think Japan is taking action."

Nations would take whatever action was appropriate, regardless of the cost, Lord Sainsbury continued.

"If you knew one was going to land on London you might think it was worth spending a lot of money to do something about it."

Artist's impressions produced for Nasa by Don Davis

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See also:
17 Sep 99 |  Sheffield 99
Small but deadly comets identified
23 Jul 99 |  Sci/Tech
Asteroid impact scale endorsed
18 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Fiery end for dinosaurs?

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