Friday, February 27, 2009

Impact? The Earth-Crossing Asteroids

Most of the asteroids in the asteroid belt remain there, but some have highly eccentric orbits that take them out of the asteroid belt and across the orbital path of the earth (as well as the paths of other terrestrial planets). Nearly 100 of these so-called Apollo asteroids have been identified so far, and a number of astronomers advise funding efforts to identify and track even more, because the potential for a collision with Earth is real. With advance warning, scientists believe, missiles with thermonuclear warheads could be exploded near an incoming asteroid, sufficiently altering its course to make it avoid the earth, or shattering it into a large number of smaller asteroids. You’re local movie theater or video store is a good source to study Hollywood’s take on these nightmare scenarios, but they are a very real threat. Project NEAT (Near Earth Asteroid Tracking) is funded by NASA. For more information see
It is believed that a few asteroids of more than a halfmile diameter might collide with the earth in the course of a million years. Such impacts would be disastrous, each the equivalent of the detonation of several hydrogen bombs. Not only would a great crater, some eight miles across, be formed, but an Earth-enveloping dust cloud would darken the skies. It is thought that the great extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago was due to such an impact. Were the impact to occur in the ocean, tidal waves and massive flooding would result.
Earth impacts of smaller objects are not uncommon, but on June 30, 1908, a larger object—apparently the icy nucleus of a very small comet—fell in the sparsely inhabited Tunguska region of Siberia. The falling object outshone the sun, and its explosive impact was felt at a distance of more than six hundred miles. A very wide area of forest was obliterated—quite literally flattened. Pictures from the time show miles of forest with trees stripped and lying on their sides, pointing away from the impact site.

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