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Science - AP
Study Downplays Earth-Asteroid Peril
1 hour, 16 minutes ago
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By WILLIAM McCALL, Associated Press Writer

Medium-size asteroids that could flatten a city the size of New York strike Earth less frequently than previously believed, possibly only about once a millennium, according to a study aided by military satellites.

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Rocky space debris created by collisions in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or chunks that break away from comets rain down on the Earth every day as meteroids, but most of the asteroid or comet pieces are tinier than grains of rice and quickly burn in the upper atmosphere as meteors.

In 1908, however, a meteor estimated to be up to 50 yards wide nearly hit the ground before it burned up over Russia, causing an explosion that flattened hundreds of square miles of forest in Tunguska, Siberia. The blast was estimated to be the equivalent of about 10 megatons of TNT — or 10 million tons.

By comparison, the nuclear bomb that exploded over Hiroshima in World War II unleashed about 13 kilotons of explosive power — or 13,000 tons.

In the new study, satellite data taken over the past eight years suggest that an intermediate-size asteroid like the one that struck Siberia occur an average of only once every 1,000 years — not every couple of centuries as previously believed, said Peter Brown, a University of Western Ontario astrophysicist.

His study, to be published Thursday in the journal Nature, was based on measurements of the flashes of light created when the debris burns after hitting the upper atmosphere.

Even chunks larger than a yard wide are too small to be easily detected with camera networks or telescopes on the ground, so Brown and his fellow researchers — including Gen. Simon "Pete" Worden of the Air Force Space Command — turned to military satellites used to detect the flash of a nuclear explosion.

By measuring the intensity of the flash of light with highly sensitive instruments, the researchers were able to estimate the size of the asteroids and their explosive power.

They tracked about 300 meteor flashes caused by debris ranging 1 to 10 yards wide from February 1994 to last September. The incoming debris typically packed an explosive punch of no greater than one ton of TNT, leading Brown to conclude the chances of a Tunguska-class asteroid damaging Earth are lower than previously estimated.

Scientists who did not participate in the study were impressed by the analysis.

"It's a darned cool approach to this," said Timothy Spahr of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who specializes in studying asteroids near the Earth.

"I'm sure the military has got other things to do but it's really nice to see things that are used for other purposes help out in this way," Spahr said.

Brown also compared his results to telescope data on larger asteroids from the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research project in New Mexico, run by the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (news - web sites).

"When you draw a line from our data down to their data, they intersect, which is remarkable because they're two completely different techniques," Brown said. "And that gives us confidence that numbers on both sides are reasonable."

However, other researchers said Brown's estimate may be subject to unexpected changes, such as an uncharted comet moving closer to Earth and showering the atmosphere with fragments of varying sizes.

"The study assumes the flux of asteroids and comets that we have been observing over the last 20 to 30 years always remains the same, a basic assumption that is regarded among some astronomers with some skepticism," said Benny Peiser, an anthropologist at John Moores University in Liverpool, England, who leads an international forum on the threat posed by asteroids.

Peiser said the study should help reassure the public that scientists are developing better ways to assess the asteroid threat, leading to ways to prevent it or at least minimize it.

Peiser said the study was valuable in another way because it helped show the U.S. military can detect the difference between a nuclear explosion and a meteor that sets off a flash similar to it — a capability he said could help governments avoid mistaking a meteor blast for a nuclear weapon.


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