On February 15th, in a scene straight out of science-fiction, a meteor struck the Urals region of Western Russia causing thousands of injuries and widespread damage. Somewhere, Michael Bay is softly whispering to himself: “They didn’t listen…”
Thanks to rampant corruption in Russian law enforcement, many drivers equip their vehicles with dashboard cameras to refute charges. It’s a hardship that Russians must endure on a daily basis. Luckily for the rest of us, their dashboard cams provided a perfect viewfinder for experiencing the meteor firsthand. [See above]
NASA estimates the Russian meteor had a diameter of 50 ft. with a mass of 10,000 tons. It was travelling nearly 40,000 mph when it entered Earth’s atmosphere. The meteor penetrated the atmosphere above Russia at a shallow angle and lasted only 30 seconds before violently exploding over the city of Chelyabinsk. At 10-15 miles above the Earth’s surface, the airburst yielded a 500 kt blast. (In comparison, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki we’re 15-20 kt.)
It’s been nearly a century since an event like this has occurred. In 1908, in Tunguska–a remote location of the Siberian wilderness–an explosion flattened 80 million trees in an area spanning 800 miles. Unanimous research and eyewitness accounts point to a meteor as the cause of impact. Based on damages, scientists estimate the Tunguska meteor was over 100 ft. in diameter, exploding above the surface with a force of 10-15 megatons (1000 times more powerful than Hiroshima/Nagasaki).
The one-hundred year lapse in historic meteor strikes has caused observers to feel mainly one of two reactions: either it proves such an occurrence is so rare that it doesn’t deserve our preoccupation or it reiterates the fact that we could all die on any given day at any given time. As an existentialist and quasi-nihilist, I’m inclined to embrace the latter. More so to the point, the 2013 Russian meteor’s entry was undetected by any radar on Earth.
I’m not privy to conspiracy theories nor am I a fear-monger. Nonetheless, the Russian meteor event leads me to questions: In our lifetime, how likely is it that Earth will be obliterated by an N-E-O? And is humanity prepared in the slightest?
More importantly, will Bruce Willis be there to save us?
NEO is space jargon for ‘meteors and asteroids’. It stands for “near-earth object”. It’s a classification used to identify objects whose orbit is in close proximity to Earth. In the United States, NASA has a congressional mandate to categorize all NEOs with a diameter of at least 1 km (0.621371 miles in America) (stupid metrics). These particular NEOs are scrutinized due to their potentially devastating effects to Earth. As of February 2013, 862 “large NEOs” (1 km+) have been discovered. Which seems like a lot. Until you realize how many total NEOs have been discovered:
While the steady increase in NEO discoveries can be mainly attributed to advancements in technology, it doesn’t deny the fact that there are a shitload of objects roaming the universe waiting to pulverize Earth’s atmosphere. As previously mentioned–the 2013 Russian meteor was undetected by radar before entry. Which proves we can’t logistically calculate a true total. Paul Chodas, a research scientist in the Near Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains that NASA is focused on large asteroids, first and foremost:
“Although the smaller ones are easier to divert, they are very difficult to detect…” -Paul Chodas
Megan Donahue, professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University, tweeted this:
“A meteor about the size of the Russian meteor hits about once a year (just not in a crowded area). Brown et al. 2002.”
I don’t understand this chart, either.
University of Michigan professor Edwin Bergin claims that an impact is even less likely: “The Earth is constantly bombarded by objects from space but mostly by much smaller rocks. Rocks that are this size (5-15 meters) statistically impact the Earth once every 5 – 30 years or so, depending on the size. But the Earth is mostly covered by ocean water so the events would not be noticed as often…”
Both Donahue and Bergin’s statements are in contrast to NASA’s calculations. According to Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, “These fireballs happen about once a day or so, but we just don’t see them because many of them fall over the ocean or in remote areas.”
Let’s get this straight. If we’re to believe NASA: 1.) This celestial occurrence is not yearly but daily, 2.) They’re nearly impossible to detect, and 3.) The impact probability apparently ranges between everyday and 30 years. It seems the only factor keeping meteors from destroying random cities on Earth is pure luck.
The modern method of categorizing the impact hazard associated with NEOs is called the Torino Scale. It utilizes color-coding to assess threat levels. It’s similar to the Bush administration’s “terror alert system”. The only difference is the Torino Scale is used for science while the terror alert system is used to justify war and unsanctioned torture.
I’m sorry, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, the Torino Scale. Check it out:
The highest rated NEO in history is known formally as 99942 Apophis. Besides sounding like a Greek mailing address, Apophis is arguably the most threatening observable NEO in the galaxy. In December 2004, it received a Torino rating of 4 (the highest rating in recorded history) with an impact date of 2029. A 4 on the Torino scale is classified as: “A close encounter, meriting attention by astronomers. Current calculations give a 1% or greater chance of collision capable of regional devastation. Attention by public and by public officials is merited if the encounter is less than a decade away.”
Apophis has since been downgraded to a 1. However, it remains a “non-zero” on the Torino scale. Which is to say, it remains a threat. Apophis was originally downgraded due the fact that further research suggested a near-miss in 2029 instead of an impact event. But research has also suggested that due to a “gravitational keyhole”, (a small region of space where Earth’s gravity would alter the orbit of a passing asteroid) Apophis might collide with Earth on a given future orbital pass. Picture a boomerang. Same idea. In other words, the close approach in 2029 could substantially alter the object’s orbit, making predictions beyond 2029 uncertain.
As an atheist, I fully embrace the ethos of science. But I’m skeptical to place 100% of my rationale in the fact that Earth is safe, based on an abstract understanding of “gravitational keyholes” and predictions about the future based on trigonometry. I know it’s math but it’s not enough sufficient evidence to ease my mind. Fun fact: Apophis is named after the Egyptian god of darkness and chaos. How apropos-phis.
In all seriousness, depending on the size of Apophis during entry and the location of the impact, this event could potentially lead to millions of casualties. Current trajectory calculations have mapped a “path of risk”. [See below] Although, predicting where it will impact seems just as trivial as predicting if it will impact.
If there is a god, he obviously hates Russia.
“It’s kind of a wakeup call that this is a tangible threat that we have to be aware of…” -Geoff Chester, astronomer with the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington
Humanity has minimal prevention contingencies for impact events besides early detection. But the risk of your house burning down is very small and yet you still insure it against fire, right? One of the most tangible concepts for mass-casualty prevention is called ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestial-impact Last Alert System). It’s a side project of the Pan-STARRS research center in Hawaii (Pan-STARRS is currently the most powerful land-based telescope in the world). The Pan-STARRS field of vision is “deep but narrow”, needing months to patrol the whole sky. ATLAS will provide detection in a more pragmatic sense. Still, ATLAS is merely an improved contingency for early detection, not a savior of mankind.
The plot of Michael Bay’s ‘Armageddon’ would suggest a separate plan altogether: train a group of ragtag oil-rig workers to become astronauts, fly them into outer space, land on the incoming asteroid, drill a hole to its core, drop a nuclear bomb down that sonofabitch and BOOM. Earth=saved. Dear world, you’re welcome. Sincerely, America.
Unfortunately, this plan is infeasible–even based in reality. A controlled explosion would only break an asteroid into smaller pieces. Ask yourself, would you rather dodge a bullet or shrapnel?
“Fortunately, Apophis needs to be nudged only about a mile to avoid a gravitational “keyhole” in space–a region that would send the asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Otherwise, it would have to be diverted 5000 miles for it to miss our planet. This reduces the energy required to deflect Apophis by a factor of about 10,000–making it theoretically possible using current technology. A number of methods have been proposed to do the job.” (via Popular Mechanics)
Only downside: doesn’t involve Bruce Willis.
To quote Geoff Chester, “This is a tangible threat.” Made more tangible by the fact that the 2013 Russian meteor strike is the first to affect a human population. Additionally, the impact site was only 70 miles from the Mayak nuclear storage and disposal facility in the city of Ozyorsk [See below], which holds literal tons of weapons-grade plutonium/uranium.
Hour and a half drive to nuclear weapons storage yet no Bed, Bath, and Beyond?
If the Russian meteor had detonated only 70 miles to the Northwest (inches in terms of astronomical units), it could have severely damaged a nuclear facility site that is previously responsible for the third largest nuclear meltdown in history. Even Chelyabinsk, the meteor’s impact site, was relatively lucky. The angle of the meteor’s approach was shallow. In terms of damage, it was the equivalent of a glancing blow. A slight differentiation in trajectory and the Russian meteor could have directly impacted Chelyabinsk–a city with a population close to one million. If that had happened, we wouldn’t be talking about thousands injured. Instead, headlines would read thousands dead. This conversation would no longer be hypothetical. Regardless, whether there is one casualty or one million, the conversation should be had and it should begin now.
What is most frightening about an impact event is that it’s surrounded by too many “ifs”. If the meteor’s trajectory was different, an entire city might have been destroyed. If the meteor’s impact was a few miles to the left or right, a nuclear disaster might have occurred. If Apophis passes through a “gravitational keyhole” in 2029, it might potentially re-enter orbit and cause global catastrophe. But the chances are small. That’s not good enough for me. I have lost all faith in probability. Especially now, after witnessing an Arkansas couple on the news winning the lottery twice in the same day.
I hope you get hit by a meteor…
The chances of winning the lottery twice in one day is approximately 1 in 1 billion. The current impact probability of Apophis is 1 in 135,000. Which means there is a 99.99926000% chance the asteroid will miss Earth. But there’s still a chance it won’t. We’re not talking about winning the lottery. We’re talking about the safety of our entire planet–our entire being.
“People have a hard time reasoning with low-probability/high-consequence risks. Some people say, ‘Why bother, it’s not really going to happen.’ But others say that when the potential consequences are so serious, even a tiny risk is unacceptable.” -Michael DeKay of the Center for Risk Perception and Communication at Carnegie Mellon University (via Popular Mechanics)
If Stephen and Terri Weaver of Arkansas taught us anything, it’s that nothing is impossible…
In summary, a piece of commentary from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (one of the smartest dudes on the planet):