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Northern Ireland

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Question agreed to.


Cystic Fibrosis

10.35 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): I am presenting this petition on behalf of the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust and its supporters, who request that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for Health to introduce legislation to exempt all adults with cystic fibrosis from prescription charges. The supporters point out that the cost of introducing the proposal would be minimal--less than £100,000 a year. The petition has been signed by 4,500 people.

The petition

To lie upon the Table.

3 Mar 1999 : Column 1184

Spaceguard Project

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

10.36 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I have a big problem with asteroids--

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): What?

Mr. Öpik: Asteroids. And so has the rest of the human race. Unless we do something to stop it, sooner or later an impact with an asteroid or a comet will lead to the end of most life on Earth.

My grandfather, Ernst Julius Öpik, was a professional astronomer in Estonia and then at the Armagh observatory in Northern Ireland. He specialised in comet and meteorite impacts on other bodies. His work led to an asteroid being named after him by the astronomer Eleanor Helin. I guess that I may have to move to Öpik's asteroid out in space one day if I lose Montgomeryshire for the Liberal Democrats.

Last year, when NASA stated that an asteroid was coming towards the Earth, I mentioned to a journalist that I hoped that it was not Öpik's asteroid, prompting him to write an article with the headline "MP to Blame for the End of the World". He at least saw the serious side of the debate.

The impact hazard comes from so-called Earth- crossers. They intersect the Earth's orbit. If we wait long enough, one will certainly hit us. Earth-crossers are leftovers from the early days of the solar system. Think of the solar system as a cosmic building site. When God made the planets, he had a lot of bits left over. When he had finished, he did not sweep them up. They range in size from dust particles to objects hundreds of miles across. They float about in space between the planets, sometimes crashing into them.

Small crashes happen all the time. Rocks that burn up in the atmosphere without hitting the ground are called meteors or shooting stars. Every shooting star is a tiny bit of space dirt, just a few millimetres or centimetres across, which ends its life in a bright streak as it evaporates in the Earth's atmosphere. For a dust particle, I guess that that is a pretty cool way to go.

Bigger crashes are not as common. Objects that reach ground level are called meteorites. They range in size from a few kilogrammes to much bigger objects. On 9 October 1992, a 12 kg meteorite fell in Peekskill, New York, punching a hole in the rear end of a car parked in a driveway and coming to rest in a shallow depression beneath it. It went all the way through the car and on to the road. I would love to have seen the driver's insurance claim. Apparently, she sold the car to a museum for a handsome profit.

Even bigger crashes are less common, but far more explosive. On the evening of 30 June 1908, a small comet-like object exploded in the atmosphere above the Tunguska river valley in Siberia. It had the explosive power of 10 million tonnes of TNT. It flattened trees for 20 km in all directions and killed hundreds of reindeer. If the Tunguska object had entered the atmosphere over Westminster, everything within the M25 would have been destroyed.

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We can expect two or three such objects to collide with the Earth every century, but it gets really scary when the objects are 500 m in diameter or bigger. An object 1 km wide hitting land would destroy an area the size of Germany, raise enough dust to affect the climate, destroy the ozone layer and freeze crops owing to the darkness of what we often call a nuclear winter. For various reasons, an ocean impact would be even worse: it would create tidal waves called tsunamis on a hemispheric scale, and would kill a large proportion of more complex life forms--including us.

The explosive effect of an object 1 km wide is about 100,000 million tonnes of TNT. Anything larger than that--wider than 1 or 2 km--is called a global killer. That means that the impact of a 10 km object would wipe out seven of every 10 life forms on Earth. Devastation on such a level is almost beyond comprehension, but we know that it has happened before, and it will definitely happen again.

How big is the risk? There is plenty of evidence on our doorstep that this is not millennium madness. Every year, about 50,000 tonnes of space rock hit the Earth. In the half-hour of this debate, more than 2.5 tonnes will descend on us from space. The big ones are hanging out there, of course, but most of that is made up of specks of dust and small meteorites.

In 1930, three meteorites landed in Brazil, causing shock waves which could be felt in La Paz, Bolivia. At midnight on 10 August last year, we nearly lost the cosmic lottery: an asteroid 1.6 km wide passed within six hours of the Earth. In space terms, that is very close. It equates to the Leader of the Opposition standing at the Dispatch Box, throwing a marble at the Prime Minister in a fit of pique, and missing his head by 2 mm. That is a sobering thought.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): He would have lost his marbles.

Mr. Öpik: I think it unnecessary to point out that, unfortunately, the Leader of the Opposition has already lost his marbles.

Had that giant rock hit the Earth, we would not be here to discuss it. A dust cloud would have enveloped the globe for months, and would have stopped photosynthesis. Plants would have died. The shutdown of world agriculture would have certainly put the talks on the common agricultural policy in the shade!

The blast would have been followed by a wave--a tsunami--that would have risen to 4 km in shallow coastal waters. The summit of Ben Nevis would have been more than a mile below water. Much of human achievement would have been lost, and survivors would have been left scavenging for life, every day a dark, cold fight for existence.

The most recent big impact occurred next door. Five years ago, a few visitors dropped in on a neighbour of ours, Jupiter. Fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter in 20 pieces in one week in July 1994. The impacts produced Earth-sized scars in the Jovian atmosphere. That was an example of what we call "streams"--when a series of objects impact one after the other, in quick succession. With an expectation of one such impact every 1,000 to 2,000 years, the Jovians might have taken a relaxed view of the chance of being hit more

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than once. In fact, they were hit 20 times in one week. That was bad luck for the Jovians, but a good lesson for us. Of course, no one actually lives on Jupiter, but a lot of people live on Earth.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): By courtesy of the British Geological Survey, I had the good fortune to have dinner, after a lecture that he had given, with the late Eugene Shoemaker, who died tragically in Australia. His considered opinion was that the position merited some action, because it was as dangerous as the hon. Gentleman makes out.

Mr. Öpik: I know that the hon. Gentleman is very interested in the subject. He is right to draw attention to the extraordinary contribution made by Eugene Shoemaker, who, in the last 10 years, created an atmosphere in which the whole question of asteroid and comet impacts could be taken seriously.

Here on Earth, the biggest evidence of global killers comes from 65 million years ago. This is a subject that Eugene Shoemaker often discussed. An asteroid 10 km wide fell on Chicxulub in the Yucatan peninsula, in Mexico. It extinguished about 70 per cent. of life on Earth, and wiped out the dinosaurs. On average, such events are expected to occur every 30 million years or so, but, as with buses, you wait for ages and then 20 come along at once--as the Jovians found out.

There is other evidence. The moon is cratered simply because of such impacts. Interestingly, the moon itself was probably caused by the impact of a Mars-sized object hitting the Earth, with the moon splashing out from our planet about 4,500 million years ago. Our solar system is not peaceful--we are living in a cosmic shooting gallery, where planets and other bodies are still colliding.

When will the next global killer strike the Earth? The next major impact could be 100,000 years away, or it could be two minutes away. Unfortunately, we do not know where all these things are, so we will be caught by surprise if one of the unexpected, untracked and undetected objects comes our way. We could have as little as 20 seconds warning before being incinerated in the catastrophic aftermath of the impact and explosion. That is not enough time even to say the Lord's prayer.

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