- An asteroid big enough to wipe out most of Europe is
hurtling towards the Earth, astronomers warned last night.
- The giant space rock, scheduled to sweep close to the
Earth on March 21 2014, is large and fast enough to devastate a continent
should a collision occur.
- However, the chances of an impact are minuscule. Yesterday
they were estimated at one in 909,000 - more likely than winning the National
Lottery jackpot, but less likely than drowning in the bath. The probability
is almost certain to fall to zero over the next few weeks as a more accurate
projection of the orbit of asteroid 2003 QQ47 emerges.
- It is the latest in a spate of "doomsday rocks"
discovered in near Earth orbit in recent years. All of its predecessors
turned out to be false alarms.
- Researchers in Lincoln, New Mexico, detected the asteroid
last week. It is two thirds of a mile wide and has a mass of about 2.6
billion tons. Calculations based on 51 observations over the past seven
days suggest that there is a small chance it could smash into the Earth
at 21 miles per second.
- The Government funded Near Earth Object Information Centre,
which issued the warning, said a collision could have the effect of 20
million Hiroshima atomic bombs. If it hit land 2003 QQ47 could devastate
several countries and if it splashed into the sea it could trigger catastrophic
- The asteroid has been given a classification - known
as a "Torino hazard rating" of one - defining it as "an
event meriting careful monitoring". On the Torino scale, zero is for
objects with no chance of collision, while 10 is for certain catastrophic
- Despite the low risk, the information centre, which was
set up two years ago to publicise potential threats from asteroids and
comets, said its warning was sensible and denied seeking publicity.
- Kevin Yates, the centre's project manager, said its size,
speed and the closeness of the potential collision justified informing
the public. "There is only a slim chance of collision, but because
of these three factors it is justifiable to let people know about it,"
- Astronomers expect to find one or two asteroids a year
that pose a similar threat, he added. "As additional observations
are made over the coming months, and the uncertainties decrease, asteroid
2003 QQ47 is likely to drop down the Torino scale. We will publish regular
updates on our website."
- In July 2002, astronomers announced that an asteroid
was heading for a collision with Earth in February 2019. The chances of
a collision were estimated at one in 9,000. But over the following few
days, as more accurate measurements were made, the risk fell to one in
60,000, then to zero.
- In April 2002, another asteroid was discovered with a
one in 300 chance of hitting the Earth in 2880. Once again, the risk vanished
over the following weeks as more observations were made.
- Although most asteroids orbit the Sun in a belt between
Mars and Jupiter, they can be nudged into the Earth's neighbourhood by
the gravitational influence of larger planets.
- Dr Alan Fitzsimmons, of Queen's University, Belfast,
who advises the information centre, said there was no cause for concern.
"In all probability, within the next month we will know its future
orbit with an accuracy which will mean we will be able to rule out any
impact," he said.
- "This year, we have had several asteroids which
have had much higher probabilities of colliding in the next 100 years and
they have almost all been ruled out."
- © Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2003.