Impacts and evolution: future prospects.Astrobiology. 2003 Spring; 3(1):193-205.A
The discipline of astrobiology includes the dynamics of biological evolution. One of the major ways that the cosmos influences life is through the catastrophic environmental disruptions caused when comets and asteroids collide with a planet. We now recognize that such impacts have caused mass extinctions and played a major role in determining the evolution of life on Earth. The time-averaged impact flux as a function of projectile energy can be derived from lunar cratering statistics as well as the current population of near Earth asteroids (NEAs). Effects of impacts of various energies can be modeled, using data from historic impacts [such as the Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) impactor 65 million years ago] and the observed 1994 bombardment of Jupiter by fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. It is of particular interest to find from such models that the terrestrial environment is highly vulnerable to perturbation from impacts, so that even such a small event as the KT impact (by a projectile 10-15 km in diameter) can lead to a mass extinction. Similar considerations allow us to model the effects of still smaller (and much more likely) impacts, down to the size of the asteroid that exploded over Tunguska in 1908 (energy approximately 10 megatons). Combining the impact flux with estimates of environmental and ecological effects reveals that the greatest contemporary hazard is associated with impactors near 1 million megatons in energy (approximately 2 km in diameter for an asteroid). The current impact hazard is significant relative to other natural hazards, and arguments can be developed to illuminate a variety of public policy issues. The first priority in any plan for defense against impactors is to survey the population of Earth-crossing NEAs and project their orbits forward in time. This is the purpose of the Spaceguard Survey, which has already found more than half of the NEAs >1 km in diameter. If there is an NEA on a collision course with Earth, it can be discovered and the impact predicted with decades or more of warning. It is then possible to consider how to deflect or disrupt the NEA. Unlike other natural hazards, the impact risk can be largely eliminated, given sufficient advanced knowledge to take action against the threatening projectile.