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Death by Asteroid: The Most Likely Ways for a Space Rock to Kill You

Artist's illustration depicting a massive asteroid impact on Earth. Credit: NASA/Don Davis

Artist’s illustration depicting a massive asteroid impact on Earth. Credit: NASA/Don Davis

If you live in fear of an asteroid strike, here’s some detail to help flesh out your nightmares.

Mike Wall reports: A killer space rock is most likely to get you via violent winds that fling you against something hard or powerful shock waves that rupture your internal organs, according to a new study.

“This is the first study that looks at all seven impact effects generated by hazardous asteroids and estimates which are, in terms of human loss, most severe,” lead author Clemens Rumpf, a senior research assistant at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

[Potentially Dangerous Asteroids (Images)]

Rumpf and his colleagues simulated 50,000 asteroid strikes around the globe using computer models. These artificial impacts involved space rocks 50 feet to 1,300 feet wide (15 to 400 meters) — the size range that hits Earth most frequently, the scientists said.

Then, the team estimated the percentage of deaths caused by each of the seven effects Rumpf referred to: shock waves, wind blasts, heat, flying debris, cratering, seismic shaking and tsunamis.

A ~4200-foot (~1.3 km) asteroid named 2014 JO25 will fly by Earth on April 19, 2017. It will pass at a safe distance of ~1.1 million miles (1.8 million km). Delay-Doppler imagery of the asteroid from the Arecibo Observatory suggests that it’s double the size that was previously thought.

Wind and shock waves were the most deadly, together accounting for more than 60 percent of all lives lost. (Though these two effects act in concert, wind blasts were far more devastating than shock waves, the study found.) The sizzling heat of an impact was responsible for nearly 30 percent of deaths, and tsunamis took most of the rest.

The Earth will have a close encounter Wednesday with a massive asteroid nicknamed “The Rock.” NASA first learned about it three years ago, and it is the largest to pass by Earth since 2004. CBS News science and futurist contributor Michio Kaku joins “CBS This Morning” to discuss how the asteroid will not affect Earth, although it does show the dangers of nearby objects.

Each of the other three effects claimed only a tiny sliver of the death toll, according to the study. Flying debris had a maximum contribution of just 0.91 percent, for example; the figures for cratering and seismic shaking were 0.2 percent and 0.17 percent, respectively.

Rumpf and his colleagues also determined that land-based asteroid impacts are about 10 times deadlier than ocean strikes. In addition, they found that space rocks have to be at least 59 feet (18 m) wide to be lethal.

That lower limit is about the size of the object that exploded above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February 2013, generating a shock wave that broke countless windows on the ground below. The resulting flying glass shards injured more than 1,000 people but killed nobody.

“This report is a reasonable step forward in trying to understand and come to grips with the hazards posed by asteroids and comet impactors,” Jay Melosh, a geophysicist at Purdue University who was not involved in the new study, said in the same statement. … (read more)


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