8 years ago

Giant comets a much greater threat to life on Earth than previously thought, astronomers say

TomoNews US
TomoNews US
BUCKINGHAM, UK — Astronomers from Armagh Observatory and the University of Buckingham, writing in the journal Astronomy and Geophysics, say giant comets in our solar system could pose a bigger hazard to life on Earth than asteroids.

NASA tracks around 12,992 near-Earth objects orbiting within our solar system. The agency estimates that around 1,607 of them are "potentially hazardous asteroids," Tech Times reports.

But a greater threat may be posed by giant comets called "centaurs," balls of ice and dust about 50 to 100 kilometres wide and with unstable elliptical orbits that start beyond Neptune.

According to the team of astronomers including professors Bill Napier, Duncan Steel, and Mark Bailey and Dr. David Asher, while orbiting, centaurs cross the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Occasionally, one will be deflected by the gravity fields of one of these planets and be pushed towards the Earth instead.

If these comets get closer to the Earth, and therefore to the Sun, they begin to disintegrate. At that point their debris will, according to the astronomers, inevitably hit our planet. The disintegration of giant comets would produce intermittent debris bombardments lasting up to 100,000 years.

"A centaur arrival carries the risk of injecting, into the atmosphere ... a mass of dust and smoke comparable to that assumed in nuclear winter studies," the researchers wrote, referring to the climate effects provoked by firestorms that would be caused by a nuclear war.

The study notes that a comet's disintegration and impact on Earth may have caused mass extinction events in the past, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The researchers also wrote that, based on growing scientific knowledge of near-Earth space, incidents of environmental upheaval and interruptions in the progress of ancient civilizations also suggest the arrival of a centaur 30,000 years ago.


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