Next week we’re all in for a bit of a close shave – a chunk of rock 400 times bigger in circumference than the City of London is set to hurtle past the Earth at a closer distance than any asteroid of its size has in a long time.
The good news is that we have far less chance of being killed by an object hurtling in from outer space than we have of winning a big lottery prize, and this particular one will pass tens-of-thousands of miles away – but that doesn’t stop us being mildly obsessed by the thought of a major collision wiping us all out, which is what may have happened to the dinosaurs.
Now EU sponsored scientists are trying to find a way to protect Earth from the giant rocks which travel around the Milky Way. The German-based NEOShield project is expected to take three years to complete, but a team of space-watchers much closer to home has been monitoring objects entering the Earth’s atmosphere for the past two years.
The meteor-watchers, based at the Norman Lockyer Observatory, perched on hills just east of Sidmouth, have a detection system with outstations running along the south of England from Tavistock to Southend-on-sea, as well as others in Derbyshire and Cumbria.
These are all linked back to the historic Devon observatory where data is stored.
“When a meteor enters Earth’s atmosphere it leaves behind it a trail of ionisation that reflects radio waves back to our various detectors,” said Iain Grant, spokesman for the observatory. “Each station has the same software which processes this information and visually displays it on computer screens together with sound, which is then sent via the internet back to Sidmouth.
“We use various radio sources for this detection from within the UK, Iceland, Portugal and Europe – and all our stations effectively act as radar receiving stations.
“In addition to detecting meteors, we can also detect other natural space debris and space-junk (old rocket bodies, satellites and man-made junk) entering Earth’s atmosphere over UK and Western Europe,” he added. “We correlate our detections with automatic photographic and video recordings carried out by the British Astronomical Association.”