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.

Getty Images/ Staff
Show Hide image

The answer to the antibiotics crisis might be inside your nose

The medical weapons we have equipped ourselves with are losing their power. But scientists scent an answer. 

They say there’s a hero in everyone. It turns out that actually, it resides within only about ten percent of us. Staphylococcus lugdunensis may be the species of bacteria that we arguably don’t deserve, but it is the one that we need.

Recently, experts have cautioned that we may be on the cusp of a post-antibiotic era. In fact, less than a month ago, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on a woman who died from a "pan-resistant" disease – one that survived the use of all available antibiotics. Back in 1945, the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, warned during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech against the misuse of antibiotics. More recently, Britain's Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies has referred to anti-microbial resistance as “the greatest future threat to our civilisation”.

However, hope has appeared in the form of "lugdunin", a compound secreted by a species of bacteria found in a rather unlikely location – the human nose.

Governments and health campaigners alike may be assisted by a discovery by researchers at the University of Tubingen in Germany. According to a study published in Nature, the researchers had been studying Staphylococcus aureus. This is the bacteria which is responsible for so-called "superbug": MRSA. A strain of MRSA bacteria is not particularly virulent, but crucially, it is not susceptible to common antibiotics. This means that MRSA spreads quickly from crowded locations where residents have weaker immune systems, such as hospitals, before becoming endemic in the wider local community. In the UK, MRSA is a factor in hundreds of deaths a year. 

The researchers in question were investigating why S. aureus is not present in the noses of some people. They discovered that another bacteria, S. lugdunensis, was especially effective at wiping out its opposition, even MRSA. The researchers named the compound created and released by the S. lugdunensis "lugdunin".

In the animal testing stage, the researchers observed that the presence of lugdunin was successful in radically reducing and sometimes purging the infection. The researchers subsequently collected nasal swabs from 187 hospital patients, and found S. aureus on roughly a third of the swabs, and S. lugdunensis on up to 10 per cent of them. In accordance with previous results, samples that contained both species saw an 80 per cent decrease of the S. aureus population, in comparison to those without lugdunin.

Most notably, the in vitro (laboratory) testing phase provided evidence that the new discovery is also useful in eliminating other kinds of superbugs, none of which seemed to develop resistance to the new compound. The authors of the study hypothesised that lugdunin had evolved  “for the purpose of bacterial elimination in the human organism, implying that it is optimised for efficacy and tolerance at its physiological site of action". How it works, though, is not fully understood. 

The discovery of lugdunin as a potential new treatment is a breakthrough on its own. But that is not the end of the story. It holds implications for “a new concept of finding antibiotics”, according to Andreas Peschel, one of the bacteriologists behind the discovery.

The development of antibiotics has drastically slowed in recent years. In the last 50 years, only two new classes of this category of medication have been released to the market. This is due to the fact almost all antibiotics in use are derived from soil bacteria. By contrast, the new findings record the first occurrence of a strain of bacteria that exists within human bodies. Some researchers now suggest that the more hostile the environment to bacterial growth, the more likely it may be for novel antibiotics to be found. This could open up a new list of potential areas in which antibiotic research may be carried out.

When it comes to beating MRSA, there is hope that lugdunin will be our next great weapon. Peschel and his fellow collaborators are in talks with various companies about developing a medical treatment that uses lugdunin.

Meanwhile, in September 2016, the United Nations committed itself to opposing the spread of antibiotic resistance. Of the many points to which the UN signatories have agreed, possibly the most significant is their commitment to “encourage innovative ways to develop new antibiotics”. 

The initiative has the scope to achieve a lot, or dissolve into box ticking exercise. The discovery of lugdunin may well be the spark that drives it forward. Nothing to sniff about that. 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman