Could an asteroid destroy Earth?

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The dinosaurs ultimately met their demise after ruling the planet for more than 160 million years, courtesy of alien visitation. An asteroid at least 6 miles (10 km) across struck the world of the dinosaurs approximately 66 million years ago, causing a chain reaction of natural disasters that led to the extinction of 75% of all living things. These disasters included earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and a global cooling trend.

However, Earth itself was still there throughout.

Could this suggest that an asteroid Armageddon won't affect our planet? What else would it take for the planet to end if not the dreaded dinosaur-killing asteroid? How large of a space rock would it need to be to destroy Earth completely?

In a nutshell, our planet could most likely only be destroyed by a rock the size of a planet. To eradicate all life on Earth, or most of it, however, would require far, far less energy.

Brian Toon, an expert on asteroid impacts and professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Live Science in an email: "An object bigger than Mars impacted Earth early in its history and formed the moon, without killing the Earth."

Toon refers to the large impact hypothesis, a scientific theory that contends a planet the size of Mars called Theia crashed with Earth 4.5 billion years ago, releasing a hail of rocky debris into orbit that finally formed our moon. (Mars is more than 500 times wider than the dinosaur-devastating asteroid; it is around 4,200 miles, or 6,700 kilometers, broad.)

Theoretically, a portion of Theia's core and mantle merged with our own, staying beneath the surface of our planet for ages to come, when the first life arose, rather than destroying it. But, according to experts, there is no question that Theia would have wiped off whatever was living on Earth at the time of this encounter, whether it was a head-on collision or only a glancing hit. (Scientists speculate that life may have emerged as early as 4.4 billion years ago, just a few million years after the Theia impact.)

Death from above

As seen by the catastrophic extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, even if the planet itself is still there, far less is required to disrupt life on Earth substantially. However, when a space rock orbits within 4.6 million miles (7.4 million km) of Earth and has a diameter of at least 460 feet (140 meters), NASA believes it to be a possible threat. According to NASA, the destruction caused by such a rock's impact could destroy a city and the surrounding countryside.

According to an astronomer at Memphis, Tennessee's Rhodes College named Gerrit L. Verschuur, a collision with a bigger rock at least 0.6 miles broad (1 km wide) will "definitely cause the end of civilization" by causing worldwide climatic catastrophes. Furthermore, if a spacecraft the size of the dinosaur-killing asteroid struck Earth now, it would undoubtedly wipe out humans and many other species.

Verschuur claimed that the initial collision generally produces a huge fireball that kills anybody in its path. The Earth is then encircled by the impact of dust and fire smoke, sending our planet into a period known as an impact winter.

There would be so much poisonous gas and dust in the air during this season of agony that plants would be unable to use photosynthesis to convert sunlight into energy. As a result, plant life would die all around the planet, and animals would die shortly after that. The only animals with a chance of surviving would be those that were extremely little and crawlers, like our earliest relatives of mammals.

Since there are hundreds of possible impactors in our solar system, it is understandable that NASA and other space organizations take the prospect of asteroid collisions very seriously. However, the good news is that for at least the next 100 years, there is no risk of a possibly dangerous asteroid hitting our planet.

Additionally, NASA is putting a plan into practice for what would happen if a potentially dangerous space rock suddenly alters course and aims for our planet. For example, a 525-foot-wide (160-meter) asteroid named Dimorphos was struck by an uncrewed rocket on September 26 in an attempt to modify its course gently.

Dimorphos is thankfully not traveling in our direction. But with this mission, dubbed the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), NASA intends to determine if crashing a spaceship into an asteroid is a practical strategy for planetary protection against potential asteroid impact dreads.

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