Keeping an eye on asteroids

Created date

June 28th, 2019

It seems the stuff of science fiction, perhaps a plot twist in an apocalyptic Armageddon movie. 

A massive asteroid is careening toward planet Earth, and there’s no real way to stop it. Its trajectory is certain, and the projectile’s size is well beyond that which the friction of the atmosphere can burn up.

In such a case, we are going to suffer a catastrophic impact—maybe the same kind that finished off the dinosaurs. As farfetched as it sounds, this scenario is possible.

Indeed, it’s something that NASA often considers. The space agency even has a branch dedicated to the subject.

In early May, the agency held its Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Md. Based on an entirely fictional impact setting, the gathering was meant to plan and educate experts on a response to a collision, should the worst come true.

Doomsday scenario

The scenario was as follows: Scientists discover an asteroid as big as a small planet inclined to Earth’s orbital plane. The following day, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory impact monitoring system pinpoints specific dates when the asteroid could hit. Although the asteroid is too far away for radar detection, astronomers continue to monitor its orbit and predict that the likelihood of a collision will increase by 2027, with a potential impact corridor that spans from Hawaii, across the U.S., and over to the eastern end of southern Africa.

And incidentally, the asteroid would be approximately 1,000 feet in diameter, traveling at roughly 43,000 mph, and would pack a punch with 1,000 times the energy of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

Although the probability of such an event is infinitely small (probably about 1%), it is, once again, nonetheless still possible. Unfortunately, there’s not much that anyone can do about it.

The majority of the discussion is less defensive than it is detective. After all, how can we deflect an object close to a quarter of a mile wide and traveling at over 40,000 mph? 

Furthermore, chunks of rock and metal are floating around all over space, and they often collide with other celestial bodies. Look at the surface of the moon, for instance.

And we know that they have hit Earth in the past. 

For example, a hunk of iron nearly a mile wide hit Arizona 50,000 years ago, leaving a crater 560 feet deep. The estimated velocity at impact was 29,000 mph, delivering a ten megaton blast.

Today, the site is a major tourist attraction.

That said, the immediate effect of the impact must have been magnificent, producing a shockwave comparable to a nuclear explosion, not to mention a debris cloud big enough to blot out the sun for a time.

The big difference between then and now is the 50,000-year interval separating us, and this raises important questions. In a fully developed society built on modern conveniences, how will people behave in a catastrophic disaster such as an asteroid strike?

This type of “doomsday scenario,” as NASA calls it, would be devastating. It would generate a new market wherein money is worthless.

Food, fuel, and medication would be the new currency. Chaos might erupt.

Always monitoring

It sounds fantastic, but the reality is that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory keeps a close eye on space debris. On May 28, for example, a 54-foot asteroid came within 202,000 miles of Earth (not much farther than the moon).

These close calls happen almost daily. 

Of course, there’s a bright side to every coin, and in this case, it’s the unlikelihood that such an event will happen in our lives. 

But never forget, that we’re not alone in the universe. There are a lot of rocks floating around out there…