A six-mile wide asteroid is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs and two-thirds of life on Earth around 66 million years ago. In 2013, a much smaller 65.6ft-wide (20m) rock injured more than 1,000 people with shards of broken glass when it exploded in the skies over Russia’s Chelyabinsk Oblast. Incidents like these tell astronomers asteroids hit the planet frequently and the damage they cause can be cataclysmic.
Professor Alan Fitzsimmons from Queens University Belfast fears another impact is unavoidable but scientists cannot predict when it will happen.
The astronomers told the BBC more needs to be done to prevent the cataclysm before it arrives.
He said: “We will get a serious asteroid impact sometime.
“It may not be in our lifetime but mother nature controls when that will happen.
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“We will need to do something about it. We’ll need to move that asteroid so it misses us and doesn’t hit us.”
Professor Fitzsimmons is not the only space expert who fears the odds of an impact are not in Earth’s favour.
Researchers at the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey have warned there is a “100 percent” chance of a collision in the unforeseeable future.
And the members of the world’s first space nation similarly believe asteroids threaten to render Earth uninhabitable for future generations.
In a bid to bolster Earth’s chances of survival, Professor Fitzsimmons has called on amateur astronomers to support the Hera initiative.
Hera is the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) contribution to NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test or DART.
We will get a serious asteroid impact sometime
Professor Alan Fitzsimmons, Queens University Belfast
The daring mission to a distant pair of asteroids will test our ability to change an asteroid’s trajectory before it reaches Earth.
Professor Fitzsimmons said: “We can do as many calculations as we like and we have done on paper but until you try it and check your calculations you don’t know if you’re going to succeed or not.
“That’s why Hera is so important – it’s our test to see whether or not we can shift an asteroid so it doesn’t hit Earth.”
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ESA’s Hera will blast off in 2024 to a pair of asteroids known as Didymos.
The duo of space rocks comprises of a 2,560-wide (780m) rock orbited by a smaller, 524ft-wide (160m) moon.
The goal of NASA’s DART is to slam a spacecraft into the binary system and shift its orbital trajectory.
The goal of ESA’s Hera is to chart, scan and analyse the surface of the smaller asteroid.
ESA said: “By the time Hera reaches Didymos, in 2026, Didymoon will have achieved historic significance: the first object in the Solar System to have its orbit shifted by human effort in a measurable way.”
Professor Fitzsimmons believes even amateur astronomers can help ESA and NASA in the mission.
He said: “Asteroid research is one area of astronomy where amateur observes continue to make an essential contribution.
“There are many out there both in Ireland, the UK, Europe and around the world who regularly track asteroids and even measure how their brightness changes with time.
“That’s particularly what we’re looking for – these advanced amateurs.”
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