September 26th is the next full moon. That night, I recommend getting hold of a pair of field glasses and having a look at our closest significant stellar neighbour. In particular, note the large impact crater near the moon’s south pole. The Tycho Brahe crater was determined to be about 100 million years old, on the basis of samples collected by the Apollo 17 mission. While such craters soon fall victim to erosion from air and water on Earth, they are well preserved on the airless moon.
Such craters are not just of geological interest. They testify to the reality of impacts from comets and asteroids. A sufficiently large such strike could have devastating effects for humanity. In 2029, we will get a reminder of how close some objects are to hitting us, when the 99942 Apophis asteroid will pass so close to the Earth that it will be between communications satellites in geostationary orbits and us. For a while, this asteroid topped the Torino impact hazard scale. NASA estimates that the impact of Apophis would be equivalent to the explosion of 880 megatonnes of TNT: about 58,000 times the yield of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
There is a small but real chance that the close pass of Apophis will alter its course such that it hits us on its next pass, in 2036. In response, a spaceflight subsidiary of EADS called Astrium is proposing a mission to learn more about the asteroid, study its composition, and investigate options for deflecting its orbit, if necessary.
In one sense, we are lucky with Apophis. It was discovered back in 2004 and has since had its orbit accurately tracked. A comet, by contrast, is essentially invisible until proximity to the sun causes it to melt and produce a tail. It is entirely possible that such an object could strike the Earth with little or no warning whatsoever.