WASHINGTON – When an asteroid exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February, shattering windows for miles and injuring more than 1,000 people, experts said it was a rare event – of a magnitude that might occur only once every 100 to 200 years, on average.
But now a team of scientists is suggesting that the Earth is vulnerable to many more Chelyabinsk-size space rocks than was previously thought. In research published Wednesday by the journal Nature, they estimate that such strikes could occur as often as every decade or two.
The prospect “really makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” said Peter G. Brown, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Western Ontario and an author of the two studies in Nature. A third paper by other scientists describing the Chelyabinsk explosion was published online this week by the journal Science.
The findings are helping to elevate the topic of planetary defense – identifying dangerous asteroids and deflecting them if necessary – from Hollywood fantasy to real-world concern.
A United Nations committee has been studying the issue for some time, and next month the General Assembly is expected to adopt two of its recommendations: establishing an International Asteroid Warning Network for countries to share information; and calling on the world’s space agencies to set up an advisory group to explore technologies for deflecting an asteroid.
Sky surveys have already spotted about 95 percent of the big near-Earth asteroids, those that are at least 1 kilometer wide, or 0.6 miles, and none are in danger of hitting Earth anytime soon.
But those are not the only ones to worry about.
“One kilometer is more than just dangerous,” said Edward T. Lu, a former NASA space shuttle astronaut who heads the B612 Foundation, a private effort to launch a space telescope that could find smaller asteroids. “One kilometer is end-of-human-civilization kind of dangerous.”
The Chelyabinsk asteroid was just 60 feet wide. Speeding at some 40,000 mph, it released energy equal to 500,000 tons of TNT. A larger asteroid, perhaps two or three times the diameter of the Chelyabinsk one, exploded above the Tunguska River in Siberia in 1908 and is estimated to have released energy equivalent to 5 million to 15 million tons of TNT, flattening millions of trees.
The proposed B612 telescope, to be called Sentinel, is designed to find asteroids about 450 feet wide, although it will also find many that are smaller. Lu said the mission would cost $450 million – $250 million to build the spacecraft and $200 million to operate it for a decade.
A 450-foot-wide asteroid, Lu said, would be equivalent to 150 million tons of TNT. “You’re not going to wipe out humanity,” he said, “but if you get unlucky, you could kill 50 million people or you could collapse the world economy for a century, two centuries.”
Lu said astronomers had found only 10 percent to 20 percent of the near-Earth asteroids of that size.