Close Encounters


2013 meteor

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:

neo discovery


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.”

msu graph

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.

apophis path of risk

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.


ATLAS shrugged.

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)

how to off an asteroid

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):

India Gang Rape Suspect To Be Tried As Juvenile


India Gang Rape

On December 16th, in New Dheli, India, an unimaginable crime transpired that would shake the foundations of life in the country. A 23 year old medical student, on her way home from a movie with a friend, was assaulted and gang raped in the back of a public bus. When the suspects were done, they threw the girl and her friend onto the side of the road. She laid there unconscious–naked and bleeding–while her friend called for help. The victim was eventually airlifted to a Singapore hospital in a last-ditch effort to save her life. Unfortunately, two weeks following the attack, she succumbed to her injuries and died.

The young woman’s death sparked outrage. Indian people (specifically women) took to the streets in widespread protests across the country (a country marred by a deeply misogynistic culture). All six suspects were arrested, charged, and fast-tracked towards trial. However, recent court documents have revealed that one of the six accused is a minor. This development has delayed the trial altogether. Five of the six accused–when formally charged–will face the death sentence (execution by hanging). While the juvenile, if proven to have been underage during the crime, will face a maximum of three years in a reform facility. Three years. No prison. What is most infuriating about this particular evasion of justice is that the alleged juvenile is reported to have been the most brutal of the attackers. 

Full disclosure, I’m not a lawyer. In fact, I know very little about the law aside from what I’ve learned from listening to rap music. But this argument isn’t about the technicalities of the judicial system. It’s about stepping back and viewing this case through a completely objective lens. It should take no convincing on my part to persuade you that it is asinine to not charge a juvenile as an adult when the charges range from rape to murder. He not only willingly participated, he was allegedly more involved than anyone. Yet, due to the fact he was six months away from his 18th birthday, it circumvents any real retribution. Five other men will hang for these crimes. Why? Simply because they’re above the age of 18? It’s an egregious form of injustice.

The juvenile’s exact age has been difficult to verify, in particular, because it is common in India for children to be born at home and thus not receive birth certificates. School records obtained by the court suggest the juvenile is, in fact, a minor. However, the prosecution is now petitioning forensics for a bone test to prove he’s 18. While I appreciate the prosecution’s tenacious efforts to seek justice for a man who deserves it, I will say this for the justice system in general: that’s fucking ludicrous.


Not to be confused with “Ludacris”

I’m aware it’s the law of the land–a minor cannot be put to death–but this conviction defies logic. Even bone tests aren’t completely accurate and can be offset by 1-2 years. So they basically diverted their efforts away from observing school records (because it was too inaccurate) to observing bone matter which is equally inaccurate.  Instead of actually convicting anyone, their focused more on finding the exact age of one suspect. Isn’t that besides the point? The other five suspects testified he was there. He’s guilty. A young woman’s life was snuffed out by rapists and murderers and yet due process has shifted towards this? A juvenile’s defense should only be invoked when deemed appropriate (e.g. A 12 year old accidently discharges a parent’s firearm, killing a younger sibling). That makes sense. However, the defense of a minor falls short when he’s a sexually active 17 year-old accused of rape and murder. I digress…

The earliest tenants of the law can be traced to Hammurabi’s Code. There is one specific law outlined in this ancient text that is perhaps most familiar to us: “An eye for an eye.” Essentially, it refers to the notion of reciprocity, which guides the moral compass of the judicial system. A punishment to fit the crime: take my eye and I’ll take yours. Simple. Luckily, civilization has evolved and we’re no longer an immoral world of nomadic barbarians, pillaging lands and poking eyes. But the phrase “an eye for an eye” is quintessential towards understanding the law at it’s core. It refers to the fine balance that underlies justice. Proper justice is both fair and reasonable. It is ‘give and take’. If you consciously take someone’s life, you deserve to be given the same fate, no matter what age.

That’s probably why Hammurabi never scribed: “An eye for an eye… unless you’re under 18.”


Damn you and your semantics, Hammurabi.

North Korea Nuclear Weapons Testing



The world’s most notorious, cherubic dictator, Kim Jong Un, is threatening America again. Like a villain from ‘James Bond’–both relentless and incompetent–North Korea’s leader announced plans to test nuclear weapons in direct response to U.N. sanctions. (Note: sanctions were first imposed because North Korea defied the United Nations ban on weapons testing.) I forget… what’s the definition of irony? An event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects? Nailed it.

The U.S. envoy to North Korea claims that the DPRK is playing a game of “Risk”. For the uninitiated, “Risk” is a board game similar to “Monopoly”. While the central focus of “Monopoly” is to amass fake money and prime real-estate, winning “Risk” involves global domination with an emphasis on imperialism (fun for the whole family!) 

risk 2

Remember kids, Kamchatka is your gateway to the East.

A ‘game of Risk’ is also hyperbole describing the perceived threat of North Korea to the U.S. Only nine countries in the world claim possession of a nuclear weapons stockpile: U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. But the term “stockpile” is relative. According to the FAS (Federation of American Scientists), the U.S. has a total of approximately 7,700 nuclear warheads. Nearly 2,000 are classified as ‘operational strategic’. In other words, on “high-alert”. In contrast, North Korea has a total stockpile that is less than a dozen. None of which are known to be operational.

This brings up one question in particular that encompasses the issue: why is the U.S. scared? The media has painted North Korea as if it’s the next Red Army. We allow petty weapons testing in a rogue despot state to conjure premonitions of WW3. We bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and we’re somehow threatened by less than a dozen non-operational warheads? That’s irrational. As irrational as our similar fear of a nuclear Iran.

America’s apprehension toward Iran is on par with North Korea. The only difference is Iran doesn’t actually possess nuclear weapons. The U.S. is merely concerned that Iran is trying to acquire weapons-grade uranium. Which is like being concerned that a drunk driver is trying to acquire gasoline, even though he doesn’t actually possess a car. Iran, only recently, launched a monkey into space for the first time. That should put their “nuclear weapons program” into perspective.

Advancements in modern technology will manifest our deepest fear: jihadist space monkeys terrorizing the universe. I foresee no hope in this bleak, dystopian future. You damn, dirty apes… 


“Fuck you, Buzz Aldrin!”

America is the equivalent of people who build doomsday shelters: overly-prepared to face an indiscriminate threat that may or may not occur and/or exist. Our biggest enemy is our paranoia. It induces fear. Fear, if not controlled, induces stupidity. And although it goes against every pretense we have as Americans, we must try to not be stupid.

During the Cold War, a concept arose known as ‘mutually assured destruction’. It basically described the zero-sum scenario of a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. The proposed aftermath of a hypothetical nuclear holocaust was enough incentive for both sides to embrace proliferation. Luckily this story line never unfolded. But the concept remains relevant.

Mutually assured destruction was apropos during the Cold War due to the fact that Russia possessed a nuclear arsenal comparable to the U.S. So much so, that the combined force would likely usher an end-of-times apocalypse (see “Ice Age”). In fact, Russia remains the only country in the world with a stockpile larger than the U.S. (8,500 total). It serves as a comparison to put North Korea’s arsenal into context. The point is, if the DPRK attempt to ‘destroy’ the U.S., there will be nothing mutual about the damage dealt. Candidly speaking, Pyongyang would cease to exist. Despite our exhaustible differences, the world should never have to witness that as a form of conflict resolution, ever again.

ice age

Potentially our future.

I believe ‘mutually assured destruction’ will deter North Korea. Because I believe Kim Jong Un must have some semblance of self-awareness to lead a country (nepotism aside). I believe this to be true but I can only hope that rationale eventually supersedes delusions of grandeur. In the end, the reality is we’re human: inherently unpredictable. Like wayward monkeys lost in the cosmos. The uncertainty is disconcerting, at best.

UPDATE: Google maps North Korea. “Siri, find the nearest gulag.”