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Is our number up?

  1. Is our number up?
    July 25 2002




    Head for the hills.


    Will February 1 2019 be the end of the world? It will if a giant asteroid heading our way hits.

    Scientists have detected a giant asteroid heading towards Earth. It could wipe out humanity, but it could miss us altogether.

    Astronomers say a huge asteroid is scheduled to crash into the Earth at 11.47am on February 1, 2019.

    If it does it would wipe out an entire continent, plunge the world into a nuclear winter and take humanity to the brink of extinction.

    However, as seasoned asteroid story watchers will have realised, there is a catch. The odds that the world will end in 17 years' time, were last night estimated to be one in 75,000 and lengthening.



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    That compares with the one in 10,000 chances of a person being killed in a car crash in any one year, and the one in 100,000 chances of being murdered. The odds of winning the national lottery jackpot are one in 14 million.

    With astronomers taking an increased interest in the threat of near-Earth objects, doomsday asteroids are cropping up with alarming regularity.

    In February, astronomers discovered another potential threat called 2002 CU11.

    Initially, the chances of it hitting the Earth in 2049 were put at a disturbing one in 9,000. But as more observations were made over the following weeks, the risk of a collision fell to zero.

    The latest armageddon rock is called 2002 NT7 and is likely to suffer the same fate.

    It was first seen on July 9 by Nasa and the US Airforce's Linear Observatory in New Mexico. Since then, scientists at Nasa and Pisa University in Italy have carried out orbit calculations every day.

    They now believe that it orbits the sun every 837 days, travels in a tilted orbit between Mars and Earth and is between 0.6 and 2.5 miles across.

    Preliminary calculations suggest that it will come close to the Earth in 2019. If it collides, its impact velocity on the Earth would be 18 miles a second - enough to wipe out a continent and throw up enough dust to block out the Sun, bringing devastation to the world's food supply.

    Dr Alan Fitzsimmons, of Queen's University Belfast and a scientist with the National Space Centre, said: "Since it was first discovered it has only moved across a small fraction of the sky. Although we know roughly where it is going, its orbit needs to be refined.

    "The orbit has been calculated every day, but we need another few weeks before we can get a precise orbit."

    On Wednesday morning the probability that it would collide with the Earth was one in 60,000. But by the end of the day, when a new set of observations had come in, the odds against a collision had risen to one in 75,000.

    Dr Simon Mitton, an astronomer at Cambridge University, said: "Astronomers have been making major efforts to find near Earth asteroids. A pattern is developing with these in that sometimes the initial observations of a new object appear to indicate that it is on collision course with the Earth.

    "But subsequent observations allow the orbit to be more carefully refined and we usually then find that the asteroid is not a threat.

    "The likelihood is that NT7 will turn out to be one that misses the Earth by quite a large margin.

    "However, this does underscore the need to develop vigorous and vigilant observation programmes in order to discover all objects of this class which might be a threat."

    Objects the size of NT7 only hit the Earth every one or two million years.

    Dr Benny Peiser, an anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University who has written about the influence of asteroids on human evolution, said he was confident that the risk of doomsday was low.

    "In the worst case scenario, a disaster of this size would be global in its extent, would create a meltdown of our economic and social life, and would reduce us to Dark Age conditions," he said.

    The dangers of NT7 have yet to be reviewed by the International Astronomical Union, the main international body responsible for announcing such risks.

    Dr Peiser said NT7 would continue to be monitored by space experts across the world.

    "In all likelihood, in a couple of months additional observations will eliminate this object from the list of potential impacts," Dr Peiser said.

    "I am very confident that additional observations over time will show that it is actually not on a collision course with Earth."

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