Asteroids could be used to destroy enemy cities if they were nudged out of their normal orbits and guided towards cities on Earth by a string of nuclear explosions.

The result could cause devastation more than 50,000 times greater than the bomb at Hiroshima and could obliterate a region the size of Belgium. The perpetrators might even be able to escape blame by calling it a natural disaster.

David Asher, of Armagh Observatory, and Nigel Holloway, of Spaceguard UK, think this isn?t science fiction?that?s it?s possible with the technology we have now.

Using a computer model, the astronomers have calculated that a terrorist group could steer a known asteroid, known as 1998 HH49, to Shropshire in England, using an average of 15 nuclear explosions. If the asteroid hit the target, it would destroy the major cities of Manchester and Birmingham.

The project would cost less than the one hundred billion dollars spent on the International Space Station and the target country would never know it was under attack. The missiles could be launched under the cover story of a satellite or Martian probe. They could be detonated during times when the Sun was between Earth and the asteroid, so they would not be visible from Earth. An uncharted asteroid could be chosen so that no one would realize its orbit had been altered.

?There are all sorts of ways of covering your tracks,? says Holloway. ?Everyone would assume this was an act of God, when it was nothing of the sort. Who would disbelieve you if you said that your latest mission to Mars had been an embarrassing loss, when it was actually carrying a cluster of weapons ready to start the real job of diverting a chosen asteroid to devastate an unfriendly nation? You would be squeaky clean, with no risk of retaliation from your target.?

The nuclear weapons would land on the asteroid and be detonated over an 18 month period, altering its orbit to line it up with Earth. This would present an opportunity for the most dangerous kind of international blackmail, since the final blast would take place only a month before impact. According to Hollyway, ?A leader would have a chance to abort the plan until the last moment.?

If the plan was detected, the target country could fire nuclear weapons to deflect the incoming asteroid.

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