Jon de Vos – Size matters in matters of size
January 7, 2010
Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia’s Federal Space Agency, started the new decade with a warning about a 900 foot tall asteroid named Apophis speeding around the solar system at some 50,000 miles per hour. According to him, sometime in the next 20 years, this small mountain of space poop could smack into the Earth and send a quarter of the Earth’s population diving headfirst back into the primordial soup. Apophis is aptly named after an ancient Egyptian demon.
“Pooh, pooh,” NASA says, “hardly a chance,” putting the odds at 330,000-1 against a collision within the next 40 years. Sounds reassuring until you realize that’s about a dozen times better odds than winning the state lottery.
Last November, asteroid 2009 VA, a mere 20-foot lump of space rock came uncomfortably close to us. It was discovered a scant 15 hours before possible impact. An asteroid that size would cause no damage and would burn up in the atmosphere with a fiery show, scaring heck out of the cows. Even so, it did miss, but with only the width of the Earth to spare and we had virtually no notice. What if it had been bigger?
Asteroid meanderings and one hopes, misses, are measured in Lunar Distances. An LD is the distance between the earth and the moon, about 240,000 miles. The diameter of the earth is just under 8,000 miles to give you some perspective. To bring it even closer to home, it would be like getting in your car and driving to Denver and back 1,782 times. It was that close.
For years scientists thought an asteroid strike was pretty unlikely, maybe somewhere on the order of a million-year event. But there’s a new school, the Holocene Impact Working Group, that says astronomers simply have not known how or where to look for evidence of recent impacts along the world’s shorelines and in the deep ocean and that actually, so far, they’ve identified over 1,100 objects that could potentially slap us silly. They say that we can anticipate catastrophic asteroid strikes every thousand years or so.
Just over a hundred years ago, a powerful explosion rocked central Siberia, flattening 80,000,000 pine trees along the Tunguska River in the blink of an eye. The event happened in the morning of June 30, 1908. There’s still some unanswered questions but it’s believed to have been an asteroid that exploded about 5 miles above the earth with the force of a 10 megaton nuclear device. Scientists are in general agreement that the space object was perhaps a hundred feet in diameter.
Hearing the Russian pronouncement, President Obama immediately turned to his predecessors for wisdom, watching the 1998 thriller, “Deep Impact” over and over. In that movie, you’ll remember then-President Morgan Freeman had to face the seven-mile-wide “Wolf-Biederman” comet that promised to make cornmeal mush out of the upper portion of our world.
President Freeman surrounded himself with the world’s best brains, finally leaving the fate of all mankind to rest upon the team of Robert Duvall and Tea Leoni. The problem worsened when, due to a budding romantic entanglement, they forgot all about the folks back on Earth and didn’t bother to use the nuclear weapons at their disposal.
As bad as that was, they still fared better than the President’s second movie, the 1984 blockbuster “Night of the Comet” when the Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s comet and everybody turned to red dust except some Valley Girls and a few rampant packs of mutant cannibals.
Turns out they were made for each other.
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