By Kevin O'Flynn
Saturday, Dec. 16, 2000

Russian scientists warned this week that life as we know it could end as early as Monday, if any one of the massive asteroids whizzing through the cosmos should happen to be making a beeline for Earth.

"There is a threat to humanity," said Vadim Simonenko, deputy head of the Institute of Technical Physics.

Simonenko was among the impressive array of experts attending a news conference with a title straight from a 1950s B-movie: "Asteroid Danger: How to Save the Earth From Cosmic Catastrophe."

The conference, held Thursday at the House of Journalists, brought together astronomers, physicists and nuclear experts to urge global cooperation in saving the world from a devastating asteroid collision that could leave millions dead or even wipe out civilization entirely.

With asteroids measuring up to 10 kilometers in diameter and traveling at speeds of up to 20,000 kilometers an hour, Earth would stand little chance if it was hit by a big one.

The Thursday gathering including Simonenko, whose institute is a part of the Russian Nuclear Center called for the organization of a world body to scour space for incoming objects and destroy any potentially dangerous flying objects with nuclear missiles.

In the case that preemptive measures fail, the citizens of the world should be prepared to relocate to the moon, the scientists added.

"After a collision with one of these asteroids, there'll be only fragments left of Earth," said Alexander Bagrov, senior scientist at the Institute of Astronomy.

Bagrov added that current technology allows experts to detect incoming objects no earlier than three days ahead of time hence the suggestion that the day of reckoning may come as early as Monday.

Bagrov, a tall, thin balding man with a moonlike face, led the rallying cry of the doom-mongers, telling grim tales of other planets done in by asteroids.

Five billion years ago, he said, the planet Phaeton - located between Mars and Jupiter, the area where the orbit of most asteroids lie - exploded into millions of bits after being hit by an asteroid 1,000 meters wide.

"And [Phaeton] was many times bigger than Earth," Bagrov warned. "After a collision with one of these asteroids there'd by only fragments left of Earth."

The asteroid that destroyed Phaeton also went on to cause the demise of life on Mars, when one of the fragments of the shattered planet whacked into Mars, causing it to sink into a grim nuclear winter that killed all life forms and turned it the bright red color it is today.

The only trace of life left on Mars is a "face with tears on its cheek" visible on the planet's surface, Bragov said.

Comets and asteroids have been slamming into Earth since time began. A huge asteroid that hit the planet 65 million years ago is believed to have killed off the dinosaurs.

But it has only been in the last 10 to 20 years that scientists have started to seriously consider the threat that asteroids, comets and other so-called NEOs, or Near Earth Objects, potentially pose to contemporary civilization.

"Ten years ago it was thought fantastic," Simonenko said of the concept that life on Earth could be wiped out by a NEO hit.

Everything changed, however, when an American scientist proved that a huge crater in the state of Arizona was caused by a meteorite and not, as previously thought, by volcanic activity.

Scientists now agree that there are millions of asteroids out there that have a chance of hitting the Earth.

If an object of more than 10 kilometers in diameter hits the Earth then there's not much chance of anyone surviving, according to a British task force that earlier this year published research on NEOs. Luckily, the chance of that happening is about once every hundred million years, the research said.

More dangerous are smaller objects of one kilometer or more which could destroy cities, change the climate and cause huge tidal waves all over the Earth.

There are roughly 1,000 such asteroids, roughly half of which have been identified as unlikely to strike the Earth.

An ongoing project at NASA hopes to identify an additional 40 percent of the asteroids within the next decade.

Even smaller objects those under a kilometer would still cause devastation equivalent to a number of nuclear bombs, but few of these have been detected.

Russia has already been hit by two large asteroids in the last 100 years.

In 1908 an asteroid crashed into Tunguska, a remote area of Siberia, causing devastation across an area the size of London.

Nearly 40 years later another asteroid hit Sikote-Alin, also in Siberia, smashing more than a hundred craters into the land.

If one of these asteroids had hit a city then millions of people would have died.

Alone, Russia has little funding to devote to NEO studies.

According to Anatoly Zaitsev, the head engineer at the Scientific Production Association, a manufacturer of satellites, an international body is needed to track all flying objects and act quickly with nuclear missiles if needed.

Zaitsev said that there is also a need to discuss the practical and moral problems associated with NEO vigilance.

Do you really want to tell the citizens of Perm that a meteorite is headed for their town square, he wondered, pointing to the rash of suicides and general panic caused two years ago in the United States when the Haley-Bop comet came unusually close to Earth.

If the big one does come, Zaitsev added, people should be prepared to evacuate the planet potentially relocating to the moon.

But how will we choose who goes, someone asked.

"Ah, that's the problem," Zaitsev said.

Related Site:
How Dangerous are Earth-Crossing Objects?
The London Times

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