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Avoiding Armageddon

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Back in the day when I was an MP, I warned the House of Commons that the chances of an impact by a 'Near Earth Object' - more commonly known as a comet or asteroid - are 100%. Worse still, I claimed the chance of an incoming object large enough to wipe out most, or all, of the human race is also 100%. It's just a matter of 'when.'

People laughed, a lot. They thought that this was one wacky campaign too many. One paper showed a picture of me with the title MP to blame for the end of the world. But I knew my ground, as my grandfather, Ernst Öpik, was one of the world's leading astronomers on this subject.

Luckily, the government didn't laugh, and the intelligent and thoughtful Lord Sainsbury, who was effectively the 'Minister-for-the-end-of-the-World' at the time, commissioned a report into the matter. The report made for sombre reading. Not only did the study agree that I'd been right in my gloomy prognosis: they also put statistics to the danger. The most dramatic of these figures put the whole thing into a very human perspective: basically, you're 750 times more likely to be killed in an asteroid impact than to buy the winning ticket for the National Lottery on any given weekend. And people DO win the National Lottery...

The NEO Task Group report made 14 recommendations for action. Now, over a decade later, a half of one of these recommendations has been implemented. The rest are just gathering dust.
So, when a report last week confirmed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation - which operates a global network of sensors to detect nuclear explosions - had recorded 26 such events since 2000, I wasn't even slightly surprised. It also explained that most of the objects responsible for these bursts of violence disintegrate high up in the atmosphere, as air friction causes them to blow up. But the blast still deals a heavy blow at sea level, damaging property, wildlife or people. Not one of these objects was detected before its dramatic demise.

I am not alone in my ongoing campaign for action. Former astronaut Ed Lu, has warned that "less than 10,000 of the more than a million dangerous asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire major metropolitan area have been found." That means we're in continuous danger of a city or county being wiped out. And the amount of warning we'd get? Just under two seconds. That's right, incinerated in less time than it takes to say "oh look, Lembit was right after all!" And then it's game over, potentially for millions of people.

Why hasn't more been done about all of this? Because it IS rocket science, and politicians are more interested in the economy, health and waging pointless wars. An asteroid impact just doesn't cut it as a manifesto relevant issue. Until it happens. And then, suddenly, there's no election because the Houses of Parliament have been reduced to charred remains and the electorate is too busy trying to find food and something wear to worry about the fact their government didn't see it coming.

The sad thing is, the solutions are simple - and relatively cheap. All we need is a set of about six ground based telescopes to keep a constant vigil on what's coming our way. With 10 years of notice, we could get up and give the thing a nudge - and, bingo! Disaster avoided!

So, what happens next? Well, that's up to us as a species. While the dolphins are smart, they haven't got the time to make space rockets or telescopes. So they - and the rest of nature - are all kind of waiting for us to get on with it and save earth from avoidable, and currently inevitable, disaster.

While Hollywood may have dramatised things a bit with Bruce Willis and all the CGI, the reality is that the cost of the film Armageddon would actually pay for about 10 years of scanning the skies. Ironic indeed that fiction is more costly than a sensible approach to dealing with the reality. While stopping a deep impact is a bit more costly, it's an international drop in the ocean compared with the cost of an impact. Oh, and one more thing - we're not wise to blow the space rocks up. That just creates millions of little impacts instead of one big one. We give them a gentle shove, 5,000 miles to the left or right, and let the thing go sailing by.

So, we know the danger, we know the approximate risk and we know what to do about it. All that is absence is the political will to do so. While it may provide me with a modicum of satisfaction to be right, personally I'd rather pass up the 'I told you so' and avoid the non-Hollywood version of Armageddon. Remember, the dinosaurs didn't worry, and look what happened to them. Let's see if their warm-blooded descendants in the Commons have a little more presence of mind, or if they turn out to be as prehistoric about our survival as T-Rex.

Lembit Öpik is a regular international speaker on Near Earth Objects, and has appeared on The Sky At Night. Contact him through The Huffington Post and follow him on Twitter @lembitopik

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