IT is the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters – the world’s top scientists team up to protect Earth from the devastating impact of asteroids. But the experts leading a multi-million pound pan-European project from a Scottish lab say their work is far from fiction, and could help avert a disaster.

Professor Massimiliano Vasile, of Strathclyde University, will lead the best minds from across the continent in a new drive to increase our knowledge of the make-up and properties of asteroids and comets in order to work out “possible actions to prevent a catastrophic impact with the Earth”.

Fuelled by €4 million in European funding, Stardust Reloaded will include collaboration with universities in Italy, Spain, Serbia, Holland, as well as the European, French and German space agencies. Vasile says the public opinion of asteroids may be shaped by cinema, but the big-screen thrills mask a very real danger that is not yet fully measurable.

He told the Sunday National: “There were a lot of films about this in the 50s, like disaster movies.

“People started thinking it was only science fiction and there would be no risk. In recent times we have an impact. The famous Chelyabinsk event in Russia showed this was not science fiction.”

The 2013 incident, in which a superbolide meteor fell to earth at 34,000 miles an hour and exploded about 19 miles above the Ural mountains, damaged more than 7000 buildings across the region, blowing out windows in many cases.

Around 1500 people were injured, most of whom had been struck by the flying glass. Others suffered eye pain and skin burns from the intense light. The meteor was the largest natural object to have encountered Earth in more than a century.

Peter McGinty, the project’s network officer, said: “There’s no chance any time soon of the Earth being hit by an object of the scale that the dinosaurs would have faced, but with Chelyabinsk, these types of events can happen pretty frequently – multiples within 100 years.

“If it happened in a city like Tokyo or London or New York, the fall-out from that would be a lot bigger. Something on that scale poses a great threat.”

Stardust Reloaded builds on an earlier phase of work also led by Vasile. The team believes the renewed backing from the European Union is testament to the quality of research carried out by the Glasgow institution’s Aerospace Centre of Excellence, which he leads. However, despite this track record and international standing, the long term future for its work is uncertain as Brexit looms, with Vasile describing the picture for research funding as something that “looks like a train wreck”.

McGinty added: “There’s no idea of exactly what’s going to happen. Until the British Government decides how they intend to proceed, there are no concrete answers. It could potentially put higher education research back years, while EU universities continue to take advantage of the massive benefits of these huge funding grants.”

As work on Stardust Reloaded begins, the team hopes it will inspire young minds to begin careers in science and technology. McGinty led two outreach sessions at Glasgow Science Centre yesterday, while a space debris tracking game based on Nintendo smash Pokemon Go is also planned.

If delivered, that could see players use real-time tracking information to “capture” debris orbiting above their heads.

According to estimates, there are more than 7600 tonnes of metal shrapnel, dormant satellites and even paint flecks travelling in the vicinity of Earth at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, and each has the potential to cause huge damage to any man-made object it hits, as in the plot of 2013 Sandra Bullock movie Gravity.

Vasile said: “There are so many people launching satellites now – particularly smaller and smaller ones – that the risk of collision, and with it the risk of setting off a cascade, is greatly increasing. We aim to understand how the growth in satellites orbiting Earth affects the evolution of the space environment and how we can best manage that.

“Asteroids and space debris represent a significant hazard for space and terrestrial assets, but also an opportunity.

“In the case of asteroids, we want to explore new ways of travelling to them, exploring them and characterising them with a view to understanding how we might exploit them with technologies still under development.”

On the big screen treatment of space, he added: “They get a lot of things wrong – for example, Gravity was full of mistakes.

“But it’s important they keep inspiring people to think about science.”