In 1998 the movie Armageddon the subject was discussed at length and acted upon. In the Bible the Book of Revelation describes the devils assembling the kings in a place called “Armageddon.” Continuing “There followed lightning flashes, and peals of thunder, then a violent earthquake. And “… Giant hailstones like huge weights came crashing down on mankind from the sky.” (St. Joseph Edition of The New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1970). Many believe that those passages foretell an event coming in our future. In 2004 NASA announced the possibility we could have a date with Apophis in 2029. In 2011 Russian scientists gave us another date to look forward to: April 13, 2036 when we might meet Apophis. What I am referring to is the possibility of Earth having a too-close encounter with an asteroid. What are the odds of any large extraterrestrial object crashing into our “blue marble?” Scientists now believe that those two dates will provide only a near-miss by quite a distance, but a third fly-by in 2068 could be the one in which it could strike the earth with possible extinction level devastation. The computed odds of this particular asteroid striking the earth are 2.3 in a million which doesn’t sound too threatening, but it only takes that one long-shot coming true to ruin your whole day.
Lets check in with some experts throughout history and see what they have to say about objects in space and if they understood their potential effect on Earth. Edmond Halley (1656-1742) calculated the orbit of the comet of 1682 by using his theory of the movement of comets. It wasn’t long before it became known as “Halley’s Comet.”
Giuseppe Piazzi (1746-1826) discovered Ceres in 1801, the largest asteroid, and with his calculations measured positions of many stars even developing a star catalog.
William Herschel (1738-1822) built more than 400 telescopes and in 1802 coined the term “asteroid” meaning star-like to describe the smaller moons of giant planets and certain minor planets. It took a while (1850s) for “asteroid” to become a standard term used to describe minor planets. Herschel was a man of many talents having discovered infrared radiation in sunlight (1800), that coral was not a plant (used a microscope to prove it), discovered the planet Uranus, he was the first to determine that the solar system is moving through space and measured the direction of that movement, and among other things found time to compose 24 symphonies.
A Russian, Vladimir Aleksandrovich Albitzky (1891-1952), discovered and documented several asteroids. And speaking of Russia, on June 30,1908 there was a powerful explosion, in the middle of nowhere, in Siberia near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River.
The blast was estimated to be 1,000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb blowing down about 80,000 trees over a 2,000 square kilometer area. Oh, it also registered a 5 on the Richter scale. Only one death was recorded and there were very few witnesses probably because the area was so remote. There is no proof of what happened and scientists are still disagreeing over exactly what occurred.
In 2008 Andrei Ziobin, from the Russian Academy of Sciences, announced that three rocks were found at the Tunguska site 20 years earlier that may prove that a comet or an asteroid did explode in the air above the desolate Siberian region. No one knows why it took Ziobin 20 years to get around to examining the rocks, but it is very possible that the break-up of the Soviet Union in the year after his expedition could have caused enough chaos to prevent his continuing this important work. These “rocks” could be the proof scientists have been looking for to show that a meteorite did explode as it approached the earth’s surface back in 1908.
Scientists have developed the “Asteroid Collision Theory” for what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The theory came to prominence in 1980 when Walter Alvarez and colleagues connected the extinction of most of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago with the impact of an asteroid (3-9 miles wide) that struck at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula creating a 66 mile diameter crater. It is estimated that the impact kicked up so much debris that it covered the sky long enough to produce what we would call today “Nuclear Winter” meaning the worldwide temperature would seriously drop due to the filtering effect the particulates would have on the sun’s rays.The lack of sunshine would have resulted in the death of vegetation first, then the herbivorous animals, followed soon thereafter by the carnivorous animals because they all lost their food source.
In 2007 William Bottke and his team at the “Southwest Research Institute” in Boulder, CO along with Czech scientists searched for the source of the Yucatan impact crater using computer simulations. The result of their work was a calculation with 90% accuracy that an asteroid named “Baptistina” was struck about 165 million years ago by a smaller unnamed asteroid creating a cluster of smaller asteroids one of which was sent into an earth-orbit-crossing path about 65 million years ago.
In 2009 Perdue University crater expert Jay Melosh unveiled his improved asteroid calculator on their “Impact: Earth!” website. According to Melosh “This site is intended for a broad global audience because an impact is an inevitable aspect of life on this planet.” He continued: ” This site gives the lowdown on what happens when such an impact occurs.” The calculator is for the use of those who have a reasonable understanding of the data on a potential impact for a specific asteroid. Melosh himself is unsure how he should feel about the possible event: “I do not know quite how to evaluate how personally ‘afraid’ of such an unlikely event I should be, but I do think that it would be prudent to use a very small fraction of our resources to at least *search* for threatening objects with the plan of doing much more if threat should be found.”
Researchers are still studying what we might be able to do to prevent an asteroid from striking earth if it is found to be on a collision course with our planet. These plans include launching nuclear missles at the rock before it could get close enough to impact earth or possibly even attempting some sort of “action in space” that would deflect the asteroid away from us or blow it up into much smaller pieces.
How do I wrap up this ” doomsday event” column? I guess the best way is to look at the subject without any emotion. The odds of an asteroid striking the earth are high enough, but the odds of an extermination level impact are even higher than that. It would be a terrible way to go through life acting like “Chicken Little” screaming the sky is falling when the odds are we’ll all be long buried before this “Armageddon” happens, if it ever does. You might want to pay more attention to your not drinking and driving, since more people die each year in car accidents caused by drunk drivers and by what is now termed “distracted driving.” Distractions include, but are not limited to, texting, talking on a cell phone, eating or drinking while driving, reading a map, changing stations on the radio, and even talking to your passengers. Keeping your fears in perspective will help you enjoy life more. So, as Bobby Mc Ferrin sang:” Don’t worry, be happy.”
Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can email me at: [email protected].