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Russia's Asteroid Problem

Russia has good reason to be concerned about asteroids. The country had two near misses in the 20th century century alone. Efforts to better prepare the nation for such an event, however, are unlikely to be effective unless Russia first builds better tele

Artist rendition of cataclysmic asteroid impact (NASA)
Artist rendition of cataclysmic asteroid impact (NASA)
Sergei Melnikov, Vladimir Tihkomirov and Kiril Zhurenkov

MOSCOW -- It's a scenario that has inspired countless blockbusters and paranoid nightmares: a large asteroid is hurtling toward Earth, and the expected blast will wipe out an entire city, or worse.

Just over a century ago, one such asteroid actually did make its way here, exploding just above Siberia with the force of multiple nuclear bombs. It could easily have killed scores, but it happily chose an uninhabited area for the blast.

Concerned that Russia may not be so lucky next time, the country's Ministry of Emergencies – for the second time in recent years – is looking for better ways to predict, and manage, possible rocks from the heavens. The Ministry recently unveiled a new call for proposals, in search of someone who is able to create a computer model of the consequences of an impact from an object from outer space colliding with Earth. The prize is relatively small, however. Also, the new competition conveniently ignores the biggest problem with asteroid detection: there are no high-powered telescopes left on Russian territory.

This is not the Russian government's first stab at predicting what might happen if objects do in fact fall from the sky. Two years ago, a non-profit called "Center for Planetary Protection" won a similar competition. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Emergencies was not prepared to comment on their work, but apparently the asteroid-impact plan is rather complex - not particularly surprising given that in order to predict the size of a future catastrophe, one has to know the size of the asteroid and its trajectory. That knowledge does not exist.

Near misses in 1908 and 1947

For most Russians, the phrase "danger from asteroids and comets' evokes a huge event, like the one that is believed to have killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But a doomsday event of that magnitude would require an asteroid with a diameter of 1.5 kilometers - and the chances of a meeting with an asteroid like that hover around one in tens of millions of years.

Less deadly guests visit us from the cosmos on a much more regular basis. According to the work of scientists from the Institute of Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the biggest tragedy related to an asteroid in all of recorded human history happened in 1490, when one fell in a city in the Chinese province of Shaanxi and killed more than 10,000 people. But that was an exception. The usual scale of the meteor-related tragedies is much smaller. For example, in 1511 a meteorite that fell in the Italian city of Cremona killed a monk, a goat and several chickens, and was seen as such an important sign of God's anger that the story made it into all of the chronicles of the time. The most recent case of death due to meteor was in 1929 in Yugoslavia, when a stone from the skies killed one guest at a wedding in a small village.

In addition, in recent years at least, the larger the asteroid, the smaller the harm has been to humans. For example, the Sikhote-Alin asteroid, which came to Earth in 1947, broke into a thousand pieces while still in the air. The fiery hail could have wiped out a whole city, but instead it rained down on an uninhabited part of the taiga in the Russian Far East.

The so-called Tunguska Event of 1908 was similarly "bloodless." A huge meteoroid exploded in the air over what is now the Krasnoyarsk Krai in Russia, creating a monstrous blast that flattened the taiga for 40 kilometers around the site and knocked down some 80 million trees. Miraculously, none of the tribes in the area where harmed at all.

All of that goes to show the importance of knowing exactly where the asteroid is going to hit the Earth. But this new search for computer projections is ignoring Russia's most important challenge in predicting asteroid impacts and mitigating their effects. As specialists from the Astronomy Institute said, Russia no longer has any telescopes capable of finding small bodies in the cosmos, the type that may be on a collision course with Earth. All of the Soviet Union's telescopes were located on mountains in regions that are no longer part of Russia. Russian astronomers, therefore, have to rely on information from abroad. But building Russia's own telescope would take an investment that far surpasses the entire budget for "meteorite defense."

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Photo - NASA

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