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."

Read the original story in Russian

Photo - NASA

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com info@worldcrunch.com!

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