Keeping an eye out for asteroids that can spell doom for Earth

2012-07-07 00:00

THERE could be hope for our planet, but not if a massive asteroid strikes.

So says Pietermaritzburg cosmologist Frikkie de Bruyn. Earlier this year, the Earth had a near miss when asteroid EG5 passed between the Moon and our planet.

De Bruyn insists the question is not if, but when the Earth will be in the way of such an asteroid.

Asteroids originate from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

“There are thousands of these rocks, which are pushed out of their orbits by crashing into each other, sending some on a near collision course with the Earth,” said De Bruyn.

He said the Earth was often bombarded by smaller pieces of debris usually referred to as “shooting stars”.

But it is the bigger asteroids that are a constant danger to life on Earth. It is widely held that about two million years ago, life on Earth was wiped out by an asteroid.

There are several lookout posts for near-earth objects, known as NE0s. Detecting them is a problem since they are usually black and do not reflect light.

There were no realistic plans about how to deal with such a threat when it comes, said De Bruyn who has a passion for cosmology.

“The best we can do is to timeously identify such a threat, send a rocket to collide with the asteroid and push it out of its collision course with Earth.

“An asteroid can be blown up, but this will merely create thousands of smaller pieces, which can be equally dangerous.”

In 2008 De Bruyn was appointed director of the cosmology section of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.

His appointment, a first for KwaZulu-Natal, is something he is very proud of.

His duties include informing people about the latest developments and educating and promoting scientific research.

The society, he said, “is very successful and I have members from Moscow State University to an academic in Australia”.

De Bruyn has been a member of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa for many years.

His interest in cosmology came after he listened to a presentation made by a University of Cape Town professor in Durban.

He said his special interest was the birth of the universe.

“I am a child of the universe and I want to understand how it works.”

He hopes to pass his passion to young people and encourage them to study cosmology.

When de Bruyn is not conducting research, he can be found in his garden or shopping with his wife.

“I also enjoy that side a lot.”

• Siyathemba.Ben@media24.com

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