Earth impact hazard


Earth impact hazard

The danger of collision with asteroids and comets whose orbits carry them near Earth. Space around Earth contains vast numbers of objects in a range of sizes, but only the largest, which strike very rarely on average, are thought to pose a great danger. Scientists believe such an impact caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs and other species at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago. In addition to creating tremendous immediate destruction, a large impact could throw great clouds of debris into the atmosphere, cutting off sunlight and causing a prolonged temperature drop—an “impact winter” (similar to a nuclear winter) that would kill plant life and bring on worldwide famine. The amount of damage depends primarily on the colliding object's mass and relative velocity. The energy released, expressed in millions of tons (megatons) of TNT, falls between about 10 megatons and 1 billion megatons, corresponding to objects roughly 160 ft (50 m) to 12 mi (20 km) across. The last destructive impact known, the Tunguska event, occurred over Siberia in 1908. Since the 1990s, search programs have scanned for objects on possible collision courses. Should a collision appear likely, nonexplosive projectiles or, in extreme cases, nuclear weapons might succeed in redirecting the object away from Earth.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
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