Irish group study warning system for space objects

An Irish scientist is helping to investigate the threat of large near-earth asteroids and comets crashing into our planet.

The 20 metre Chelyabinsk meteor which exploded over Russia skies two years ago injuring more than 1,200 people was a sobering reminder of the danger of space objects hitting the Earth, but the Armagh Observatory are at the forefront of research into the potential threat from comets.

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Mark Bailey, from Armagh Observatory, said objects the size of a house run into the Earth approximately every decade but often go undetected as they could hit the sea or desert.

“The key is to understand the orbit before the impact and then you have a choice. If you know it is going to hit you next week then all you can do is predict where it will hit and remove any affected population from that area.

“If you had years of warning then there is an option I suppose to try and deflect the orbit in space.

“Now we’ve rendezvoused with a comet and we’ve rendezvoused with asteroids there is a technology that exists, to put it crudely, to put a rocket motor on it and steer it away gently.

“There are a lot of suggestions of how it might be done but no one yet has attempted to do it.”

The research being carried out on the origins of comets in Armagh could help to give the earth an early warning of a life-threatening collision in the future.

“We are working theoretically on computer modelling to try to really understand what would happen is an object broke up in space and how long would it be before the fragments would collide or intercept the earth’s orbit. We are interested in trying to quantify and learn more about the hazard.

“It’s partly aimed at pure science — questions such as the origins of comets and our solar system — but we also learn more about the objects that will potentially collide with the earth.

“In this way we are not as impotent against that natural hazard as the dinosaurs were 65 million years ago when a really big one did come and wipe them out.”

An asteroid or a comet about 10km wide is now widely thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs when it landed where Mexico is now.

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