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General: Asteroid could start nuke war

By Richard Stenger (CNN)

Small asteroids pose a bigger threat than large ones because of the much greater odds of a collision, U.S. Air Force general says.
Small asteroids pose a bigger threat than large ones because of the much greater odds of a collision, U.S. Air Force general says.

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Read Thursday's testimony on near-Earth objects before the House Committee on Scienceexternal link

(CNN) -- While astronomers scan the skies for killer asteroids, smaller cosmic boulders pose a greater overall risk and could even spark a nuclear conflict, space and military representatives told a congressional hearing Thursday.

Scientists estimate that near the Earth's orbital path are slightly more than 1,000 asteroids 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter or larger that could cause global catastrophes if they hit their mark.

NASA expects to conclude a census of such large near-Earth objects, or NEOs, in 2008 and has already identified almost half of the predicted population.

Collisions with such monster rocks take place only once every 1 million years or so. Better to worry about those the size of cars, which hit every few weeks, or those the size of whales, which hit every few centuries, said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon Worden.

An asteroid 5 to 10 meters in diameter exploded in June over the Mediterranean Sea, releasing as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II, Worden told the House Committee on Science.

"Imagine that the bright flash accompanied by a damaging shock wave had occurred over India or Pakistan," said Worden.

He noted that at the time the two countries were near the brink of war and that either could have mistaken it for a surprise attack.

'Nuclear horror'

"The resulting panic in the nuclear-armed and hair-triggered opposing forces could have been the spark that ignited a nuclear horror we have avoided for over a half century."

And, he said, if a space boulder in the 100-meter range detonated over a major city, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people might die.

His point was that it wouldn't take a so-called "dinosaur killer" asteroid to cause a major catastrophe.

Space experts at the hearing debated whether to expand NASA's census to smaller residents of our space neighborhood.

"I feel it is premature to consider an extension of our current national program to include a complete search for smaller-sized NEOs," said Ed Weiler, deputy administrator of the space agency.

Joseph Burns of Cornell University thought otherwise. The engineering and astronomy expert suggested that NASA help fund a $125 million ground-based observatory to look for smaller asteroids.

The so-called Large-aperture Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST, would be able to scan huge swaths of the sky, rather than small patches like conventional observatories.

"The LSST could locate 90 percent of all near-Earth objects down to 300 meters [1,000 feet] in size, enable computations of their orbits and permit assessment of their threat to Earth," Burns said.

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