An astrophysicist offered the Elizabeth City Rotary Club this week a sobering account of the potential for a catastrophic impact from an asteroid or comet.
Malcolm LeCompte of Comet Research Group spoke to the club about the potential damage to earth from the impact of a near-earth object, or NEO, striking the earth.
Tim Witwer, the club’s president, also is associated with Comet Research Group.
LeCompte said Comet Research Group is focused on early identification and warning as well as hazard mitigation.
“We’re trying to save the planet,” LeCompte said.
LeCompte explained that the solar system is less stable and more dangerous than had been long thought. In one generation the perception of the solar system changed from “the safe old solar system” pre-1970 to “the new and dangerous solar system” during the 1970s and later, he said.
The older notion of the safe solar system stressed nine predictably stable planets and asteroid belt objects located safely between Mars and Jupiter.
That change in perception resulted mainly from the discovery of much larger numbers of near-earth asteroids and also the observation of “dwarf planets,” which are large bodies in the outer solar system.
LeCompte said more than 20,000 NEOs have been identified.
An NEO roughly the size of Washington, D.C., would cause global-scale destruction, LeCompte said.
A smaller NEO, roughly the size of the National Mall, would still devastate most nations, he said.
Although much of the attention is often given to asteroids, “comets are far more dangerous,” LeCompte said. Comets are “unguided missiles,” he said.
Comets are characterized by high speed and a low density but potentially high mass, according to LeCompte.
The dinosaurs were likely wiped out by an asteroid about 30 million years ago, LeCompte said.
Even objects that never strike the earth can wreak extreme havoc, LeCompte explained.
As an example he cited the 2013 event at Chelyabinsk in Central Russia in which the explosion of a meteor miles above the earth caused damage on the ground and injured more than 1,000 people.
The 1908 Tunguska Event in Siberia also was caused by an explosion in the air. LeCompte said it’s important to note that the object exploded miles above the earth’s surface but still caused massive damage on the ground.
LeCompte holds a doctorate in astrophysical, planetary and atmospheric sciences from the University of Colorado. From 2004-14 he was professor of math and computer science at Elizabeth City State University.
Since 2015 LeCompte has been co-director of Comet Research Group.
More information about the group is available at cometresearchgroup.org.