Hurrah, we've found an asteroid that might kill us all in 2032

2013 TV135 is meant to be a 410m space rock of death, but it's OK - there's a 99.998% chance it'll miss us.

Doomsayers, rejoice! Ukrainian astronomers have discovered Earth's new most dangerous space threat - a 410m-wide asteroid that will skim through our region of space twice between on 2032 and 2047.

To keep track of dangerous so-called Near-Earth Objects (or NEOs) there's a standardised ranking system known as the Torino scale. Zero means something isn't a threat, ten means a definite impact is expected. 2013 TV135 - as this terrifying new asteroid has been dubbed - has been bumped up to a whopping one out of ten, making it the joint-most dangerous threat to Earth that we know of. The other asteroid ranked at a danger level of one out of ten (as you can see on Nasa's Near-Earth Object Program site) is 2007 VK184. That one will pass near to Earth four times between 2048 and 2057.

However, before you start shopping for bomb shelters, it's always worth putting discoveries like this in context, especially since the Chelyabinsk meteor last year. That really was a scary event, a once-in-a-few-decades object that, this time, exploded over a heavily-populated area instead of the more usual oceans, deserts and other empty parts of this world where we don't notice.

That meteor is estimated to have been between 17 and 20 metres in diameter, and weighed about 10,000 tonnes. Compared to that, 410 metres sounds absolutely massive, and if it is that big - there's every chance that further readings will reduce that - it will post a serious risk to humanity's existence.

But, consider that its current chance of hitting us is somewhere in the region of one in 63,000. That's not very good. 2007 VK184 has a better shot of of an impact, at one in 1,750, but those are still, quite literally, astronomical odds.

It's very similar to the one in roughly 2,000 chance that the 5km-wide comet ISON had of hitting Mars (as estimated earlier this year), a possibility that left some scientists very excited. The chance to see an enormous bit of ice and rock smash into another planet - one that we have cameras and sensors trained on thanks to rovers and satellites - would have been extremely useful to observe. Even if it missed, a close pass by a comet that big should have looked pretty spectacular, and scientists expected ISON to put on quite a glorious show.

In the end, though, this is what ISON looked like:

See that white speck in the middle of those panels? That's ISON, as it flew past Mars this month. One of the most anticipated comets in years turned out to brighten a lot less than we thought, and the result was, well, that. A speck.

This is all to show that predicting asteroids and comets is a tricky business, but it's something we're getting a lot better at. We tend to spot the really big ones a long way in advance, and the organisations around the world which work to track them - which, along with Nasa, includes everything from the European Space Agency's Gaia mission to the work of the non-profit B612 Foundation and its Sentinel project - are pretty sure that we won't get caught out by anything like the asteroid that is presumed to have killed off the dinosaurs.

The problem is the smaller ones, the ones smaller than 100m. Those ones can knock out cities and towns out of nowhere (see: Chelyabinsk), and we think there are probably around 4,700 of those still out there that we haven't found. Compared to that risk, 2013 TV135 is almost small-fry - and it's a good sign that we've found it so early.

 

The impact site of last year's Chelyabinsk meteor. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty
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The science and technology committee debacle shows how we're failing women in tech

It would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

Five days after Theresa May announced, in her first Prime Minister’s Questions after the summer recess, that she was "particularly keen to address the stereotype about women in engineering", an all-male parliamentary science and technology committee was announced. You would laugh if it wasn’t all so depressing.

It was only later, after a fierce backlash against the selection, that Conservative MP Vicky Ford was also appointed to the committee. I don’t need to say that having only one female voice represents more than an oversight: it’s simply unacceptable. And as if to rub salt into the wound, at the time of writing, Ford has still not been added to the committee list on parliament's website.

To the credit of Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP who was elected chair of the committee in July, he said that he didn't "see how we can proceed without women". "It sends out a dreadful message at a time when we need to convince far more girls to pursue Stem [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects," he added. But as many people have pointed out already, it’s the parties who nominate members, and that’s partly why this scenario is worrying. The nominations are a representation of those who represent us.

Government policy has so far completely failed to tap into the huge pool of talented women we have in this country – and there are still not enough women in parliament overall.

Women cannot be considered an afterthought, and in the case of the science and technology committee they have quite clearly been treated as such. While Ford will be a loud and clear voice on the committee, one person alone can’t address the major failings of government policy in improving conditions for women in science and technology.

Study after study has shown why it is essential for the UK economy that women participate in the labour force. And in Stem, where there is undeniably a strong anti-female bias and yet a high demand for people with specialist skills, it is even more pressing.

According to data from the Women’s Engineering Society, 16 per cent of UK Stem undergraduates are female. That statistic illustrates two things. First, that there is clearly a huge problem that begins early in the lives of British women, and that this leads to woefully low female representation on Stem university courses. Secondly, unless our society dramatically changes the way it thinks about women and Stem, and thereby encourages girls to pursue these subjects and careers, we have no hope of addressing the massive shortage in graduates with technical skills.

It’s quite ironic that the Commons science and technology committee recently published a report stating that the digital skills gap was costing the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP.

Read more: Why does the science and technology committee have no women – and a climate sceptic?

Female representation in Stem industries wasn’t addressed at all in the government’s Brexit position paper on science, nor was it dealt with in any real depth in the digital strategy paper released in April. In fact, in the 16-page Brexit position paper, the words "women", "female" and "diversity" did not appear once. And now, with the appointment of the nearly all-male committee, it isn't hard to see why.

Many social issues still affect women, not only in Stem industries but in the workplace more broadly. From the difficulties facing mothers returning to work after having children, to the systemic pay inequality that women face across most sectors, it is clear that there is still a vast amount of work to be done by this government.

The committee does not represent the scientific community in the UK, and is fundamentally lacking in the diversity of thought and experience necessary to effectively scrutinise government policy. It leads you to wonder which century we’re living in. Quite simply, this represents a total failure of democracy.

Pip Wilson is a tech entrepreneur, angel investor and CEO of amicable