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The Asteroids Are Coming

One is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Now British scientists want something to be done to protect the earth from being hit by a major asteroid.

The Task Force on Near Earth Objects, appointed by science minister Lord Sainsbury, has produced a report that says the threat of an asteroid hit is real and the government should take action to prevent it.

The report, published Monday, urged the British government to seek international partners to fund a new powerful telescope, stationed in the Southern Hemisphere that would act as an early warning system.

Professor Mark Bailey, of Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland, said the effects of the earth being hit by a half-mile wide asteroid would be devastating.

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"This would cause a global catastrophe wherever it hit the earth, via a climate change, and this would lead to a rapid cut-off of the food supply and ultimately within a few months to a loss of probably greater than a quarter of the world's population," Bailey told BBC radio.

Lembit Opik, a member of parliament who campaigned for the task force to be set up, called for $98 million to be spent over 10 years on technology to track approaching asteroids.

This could give five, 10 or even 100 years notice and provide the chance to divert asteroids by "giving them a nudge with a rocket or a nuclear device," Opik said. A slight diversion could push asteroids up to 5,000 miles out of the earth's orbit.

Experts believe that up to 10,000 football-sized asteroids land every year but most go unnoticed.

Lord Sainsbury said the report "sets out clearly and authoritatively the nature of the risk and it suggests the sort of international action that we should participate in."

He said the establishment of a British asteroid defense center was one of the report's recommendations.

But he added: "This is such an obviously international situation that it very much one where the international community should work together."

Sainsbury said NASA already had a substantial program and had been set a goal by Congress to detect at least 90 percent of all near-earth objects with a diameter greater than one km within 10 years.

He said the problem was being taken seriously even though there was only a big asteroid impact every 100,000 years.

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