U.S. early warning satellites detected an explosion in the Earth’s atmosphere June 6, with an energy release estimated to be 12 kilotons, equivalent to the blast that destroyed Hiroshima. Observers feared that either India or Pakistan had set off a nuclear bomb. Fortunately, it occurred over the Mediterranean Sea. If the bright flash and accompanying shock wave had occurred in the atmosphere over either of those two countries, the other one might have retaliated and set off a retaliatory bomb, starting a major war.
U.S. officials quickly determined that a meteor caused the explosion. Neither India nor Pakistan have the kind of sophisticated sensors that can tell the difference between a natural impact and a nuclear detonation, according to Brig. Gen. Simon P. Worden of the U.S. Space Command. This kind of threat will become greater, as more and more countries acquire nuclear weapons.
Worden thinks a natural impact warning center should be established that can assess and release data about incoming objects that could be misinterpreted to all interested parties as soon as possible after the event. This would also be valuable in case an asteroid impacts the Earth.
“Just about everyone knows of the ‘dinosaur killer’ asteroids,” Worden says. “These are objects, a few kilometers across, that strike on time scales of tens of millions of years. While the prospect of such strikes grabs people’s attention and makes great catastrophe movies, too much focus on these events has been counterproductive. We need to focus our energies on the smaller, more immediate threats.
“An object probably less than 100 meters in diameter struck Tunguska in Siberia in 1908, releasing the energy equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear blast,” Worden says. “In 1996, our satellite sensors detected a burst over Greenland equal to a 100-kiloton yield. Had any of these struck over a populated area, perhaps hundreds of thousands might have perished.”
An even worse catastrophe would be an ocean impact near a heavily populated shore. “The resulting tidal wave could inundate shorelines for hundreds of miles and potentially kill millions,” Worden says. “There are hundreds of thousands of objects this size that come near the Earth. We know the orbits of just a few. New space-surveillance systems capable of scanning the entire sky every few days are needed. They could enable us to completely catalog and warn of objects (less than 100 yards in diameter).
“I believe various aspects related to NEO (Near Earth Object) impacts, including the possibility that an impact would be misidentified as a nuclear attack, are critical national and international security issues,” says Worden. “The focus of NEO mitigation efforts should shift to smaller objects. The near-term threats are much more likely to come from these ‘small’ objects, and we might be able to divert such objects without (resorting) to nuclear devices.”
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