Risk of asteroid hitting Earth higher than thought - report

Tuesday 22 April 2014 22.26
A meteorite caused extensive damage to property in the Russian town of Chelyabinsk in 2013
A meteorite caused extensive damage to property in the Russian town of Chelyabinsk in 2013

Asteroids hitting the Earth caused 26 nuclear-scale explosions between 2000 and 2013, a new report has found.

Some were more powerful - in one case, dozens of times stronger - than the 15-kilotonne atom bomb blast that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.

The impacts were recorded by the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation, which operates a global network of sensors listening out for nuclear weapon detonations.

Most occurred too high in the atmosphere to cause any serious damage on the ground.

But scientists say the evidence is a sobering reminder of how vulnerable the Earth is to the threat from space.

None of the asteroids were detected or tracked in advance by any existing space or Earth-based observatory.

Former astronaut Ed Lu, who spoke about the new data at a press briefing at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, said: "While most large asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire country or continent have been detected, less than 10,000 of the more than a million dangerous asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire major metropolitan area have been found by all existing space or terrestrially-operated observatories."

Dr Lu is co-founder and chief executive of the B612 Foundation, a research body dedicated to finding ways of protecting the Earth from dangerous asteroids.

The most dramatic asteroid impact in recent times occurred when an object exploded over Tunguska in Siberia in 1908.

An area of remote forest covering 1,990 square kilometres was flattened by the blast.

In 2013, a 600-kilotonne meteor explosion above the Russian town of Chelyabinsk caused extensive damage to property.

Asteroid impacts greater than 20 kilotonnes occurred in South Sulawesi in Indonesia in 2009, the Southern Ocean in 2004, and the Mediterranean Sea in 2002.

In 2018, the B612 Foundation plans to launch the world's first privately-funded deep space mission, Sentinel, which will use an infrared space telescope to identify threatening objects when they are still millions of kilometres away.

Sentinel is expected to detect and track more than 200,000 asteroids in its first year of operation.