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'Deep Impact': It could happen

Scene from "Deep Impact"  
May 9, 1998
Web posted at: 11:05 p.m. EDT (0305 GMT)

(CNN) -- Hollywood isn't too far off the mark with its latest high-budget, special-effects-laden film, "Deep Impact," scientists say.

In the movie, scientists discover that a billion-ton comet is on a collision course with Earth. The rock is so big that its impact will spark giant tidal waves that wash away whole cities and eventually end all life on the planet.

Sound far-fetched?

Not to astrophysicist Jack Hills, a real-life expert on killer rocks in space.

Hills' research shows that a big comet splashing into the middle of the ocean really could spark a 1,000-foot tidal wave -- a wall of water that would turn the entire Eastern Seaboard into a salt marsh all the way to Appalachia.

A computer simulation by Sandia National Labs in New Mexico shows that a mile-wide comet plunging into the Atlantic Ocean near New York City would have a force several times more powerful than all the nuclear weapons ever created.

CNN's Rick Lockridge reports
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"You end up with millions of people killed and trillions of dollars in damage from a large wave, and it's very hard to recover from that," Hills says.

"Humans are, I think, much more resilient than (other species), but it would be something that would take a very, very, very long time to recover from."

Hills and other scientists are calling for a 10-year, $100 million effort to map all stray space rocks a kilometer or more wide that cross Earth's orbit. Hills says the current million-dollar-per-year monitoring program has only succeeded in finding about 10 percent of the objects that might threaten the planet.

"So the other 90 percent can hit at any time without any significant warning," he says. "They could be potentially impacting on the other side of the Earth right now, and we would be so far blissfully ignorant."

Correspondent Rick Lockridge contributed to this story.


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