Chicken Little was right. The sky actually is falling.
Well, not the blue, nothingness we call sky, but rather big honking chunks of space debris hurtling through it… that’s what’s falling.
You’ve no doubt seen the YouTube video or news accounts of the spectacular and destructive meteor event in Russia, when a 15-metre space rock exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk, on Feb. 15, injuring more than 1,000 people and blowing out windows across the region.
The digital class clowns of the world immediately pounced on the news and began Tweeting and posting on forums about the Mayans forgetting to “carry the one” when doing the math and devising their doomsday calendars. Others remarked about a little baby dressed in a red and blue outfit sporting an “S” emblazoned on it emerging from the meteor wreckage and leaving with some farmers. One of my favourites was an image making the Facebook rounds with Marvin the Martian from Looney Tunes Photoshopped onto a picture of the aforementioned meteor. No doubt making sure of the “Earth-shattering ka-boom,” as he is famous for saying.
But it isn’t exactly as funny when you realize scientists really have no way of accurately predicting — and more importantly preventing — an unexpected Earth-shattering ka-boom that could cause major damage and injury. Let’s not forget that at least one of those cosmic collisions is responsible — so we think — for the extinction of the dinosaurs. If it wasn’t for a big hunk of rock spanking the planet a long, long time ago… we’d all be speaking lizard today and eating bugs or something.
But on the same day the unforeseen meteor blew up over Russia, scientists were tracking an Olympic-pool-sized asteroid called 2012 DA14 that made a harmless pass by the Earth. We only saw that coming a year ago. Just a month ago, an asteroid called 2012 BX34 whipped by at a distance of 65,000 km, and that one had only been discovered two days before. In fact, astronomers estimate that they don’t know about 10 per cent of Near Earth asteroids that are bigger than 1km… which is human-civilization-destroying size. Actually there are millions of asteroids in our solar system, but most have stable orbits in an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. An asteroid only becomes Near Earth if it gets pulled into the Earth’s vicinity by the gravity of nearby planets. Luckily, most asteroids are so small that even if they do hit the planet, they burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere. Even a collision with an asteroid of more than 1 km in size only occurs — according to scientists — once or twice every million years or so… so the odds are pretty good we’re not going the way of the dinosaur just yet. But still, it does feel like we’re playing some cosmic game of Russian roulette, and sooner or later we’re going to lose the game.
But scientists are working on ways to better detect these objects (and the Russian event has sparked a new call for increased funding for these projects) — and possibly deflect them, and it is pretty comforting to know that (at least according to my brief research), the only recorded fatality in recent history from a meteor strike was a cow in the 1950s. OK, it’s probably not comforting if you’re a cow… or tend to stand out in fields a lot… but still… it beats worrying about an Earth-shattering ka-boom in the wee hours of the night.
Oh well, sleep tight.