From The Sunday Times, 23 July 2000

A group of scientists known in government circles as "The X Files
committee" has warned that the Earth is overdue for an asteroid strike
serious enough to wipe out 10% of its population.

Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, is studying the report by the Near
earth Objects Taskforce and is expected to announce its findings within
days. It calls for international co-operation to track asteroids and
comets likely to cross the Earth's orbit.

The report says the risk of death is about the same as from an aircraft
crash and similar to a terrestrial accident such as a nuclear reactor
meltdown. Although strikes are rare, the damage inflicted by a single
hit could be enormous.

If an asteroid 1km wide landed in the Atlantic Ocean, it would destroy
most European coastal cities and swamp parts of Britain in a tidal wave.
If it struck land, it could kill millions and throw up a dust cloud that
could create and artificial winter lasting years.

An asteroid of that size is likely to hit Earth once every 100,000
years. According to the task force there has been no strike for at least
that time.

Scientists at the government's atomic weapons establishment at
Aldermaston are devising ways to attack asteroids with nuclear weapons
to deflect them. Britain is expected to collaborate with its European
partners to devise a system whereby a series of warheads could be
launched if necessary.

Dr Nigel Holloway, a senior scientist at Aldermaston who advised the
taskforce, said there was growing acceptance in government of the need
for countermeasures.

"For a 1-2km asteroid you would use warheads equal to about 100,000
Hiroshimas," he said. "There are disadvantages of trying to do it with
one big shot because some of these asteroids are rather fragile. What
you don't want to end up with is buckshot, because you have no hope of
deflecting that. So you make a devise to 'flash' the asteroid on one
side with an intense burst of neutron radiation and blow some of the
surface off to achieve the deflection."

According to well-placed scientific sources, Nasa has already started
investigating how to detonate such a nuclear warhead with a 150m "Near
Earth Asteroid" probe.

Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire, whose grandfather
was an astronomer specialising in cosmic impacts, said: "It is not a
question of whether an extinction-level will occur, it is when. Each of
us is 750 times more likely to be killed by an asteroid strike than to
win the national lottery this weekend."

A 50-metre-wide asteroid that exploded in the air above Siberia in 1908
destroyed vast areas of forest and caused a dust cloud 10km high that
affected the climate for years (sic!).

A similar event over central London could kill 7m people and lay waste
to an area extending outwards as far as the M25.

Dr Harry Atkinson, who chaired the taskforce, declined to comment on the
findings. The warnings of the report are uncannily similar to the plots
of the two recent Hollywood films, Armageddon and Deep Impact.

When he set up the committee, Sainsbury said: "We cannot ignore the
risk, however remote, and a case can be made for monitoring the
situation on an international basis."

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.

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