Keeping an eye on asteroids


There may be much more to the "cosmic building site" of the sky at night than first meets the eye. Research into the impact hazard from so-called Earth crossers - objects varying in size from dust particles to 10 km-wide asteroids - suggests that the next major impact could be 100,000 years away or just two minutes away.

Unfortunately, research in this area of astronomy is often dismissed by governments as the work of doom-laden professors seeking funding for obscure projects and the serious elements of the debate are largely forgotten.

That assumption was swept away in the House of Commons last week when MPs found themselves grappling with the minutiae of cosmic roulette, asteroid impacts and shooting stars.

During an adjournment debate proposed by the Liberal Democrat MP, Mr Lembit Opik, whose grandfather, Ernst Julius Opik, was once the director of Armagh Observatory, the Minister for Energy and Industry, Mr John Battle, said the government was "sympathetic" to the aims of scientists at Spaceguard UK, whose research includes the discovery, pursuit and orbital calculation of NEOs - Near Earth Objects.

Spaceguard UK complements the international research of the Spaceguard Foundation established in 1996 by astronomers in a working group of the International Astronomical Union. The government funds a number of NEO projects nationally and internationally, but Mr Battle has now promised to visit Armagh Observatory where Mr Opik wants the government to establish a UK centre of excellence to co-ordinate Britain's research of NEOs.

"To set up the centre and the feasibility study group would cost about £4.56 million (sterling) over 10 years; that is less than £500,000 a year. For comparison, that is less than 2 per cent of the cost of the Millennium Dome. McDonald's has given £12 million sponsorship to the dome, which is more than the entire cost of UK participation in Spaceguard over 10 years," Mr Opik said.

Earth-crossers or NEOs intersect the Earth's orbit and are leftovers from the creation of the solar system. The rocks that burn up in the Earth's atmosphere but don't hit the surface are called meteors or shooting stars and the objects which hit the ground are called meteorites, such as the one which hit the Tunguska river valley in Siberia in 1908. It had the power of 10 million tonnes of explosives and tore down trees and killed hundreds of reindeer in a 20-km area surrounding the impact site.

Astronomers believe there are about 2,000 asteroids floating close to the Earth.