A photo released on January 4, 2013 of Comet 2011 L4 (Pan-STARRS) using the 2-m diameter Faulkes Telescope South at Siding Spring, Australia. AFP PHOTO/ARMAGH OBSERVATORY
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Planet Earth could be at higher risk of a space rock impact than widely thought, according to astronomers who suggested Tuesday keeping a closer eye on distant giant comets.Most studies of potential Earth-smashers focus on objects in the asteroid belt roughly between Mars, Earth's outside neighbor, and Jupiter on its other flank, said the researchers.But they noted that the discovery in the last two decades of hundreds of giant comets dubbed centaurs, albeit with much larger orbits, requires expanding the list of potential hazards.These balls of ice and dust, typically 50-100 kilometers (31-62 miles) wide, have unstable, elliptical orbits that start way beyond Neptune, the most distant planet from the Sun. Their paths cross those of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, whose gravity fields occasionally deflect a comet towards Earth – once about every 40,000-100,000 years.
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