Space is out to get us
© Bryan Zepp Jamieson
February 15th, 2013
OK, it’s official. The ZNN news service has just announced that this morning’s meteoroid strike in Chelyabinsk, Russia, has knocked earth off its axis, with the result that the south pole will be constantly facing directly toward the sun. No more sunrises and sunsets.
But it’s a moot point, because it also knocked the earth out of orbit, and it is now receding from the sun. Folks are advised to exhale as much as they can in order to increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere so we can stay warm. It’s a little-understood factoid that CO2 actually warms the air. Radioactive chemical reactions or something.
But that’s not important. Earth may be spiraling out of control toward the stars, some of which are a surprisingly long way away, but it’s going to collide with Pluto. That will warm us up. That’s the good news. But it will kill anything left alive after the mutant space radiation sickness.
Oh, did I forget to mention the mutant space radiation sickness? The meteorite had radioactive space germs on it, some sort of space flu but with plutonium, and it’s going to drive us all insane. We will believe in Republican economic policies, with the result that 99% of us will starve before we hit Pluto. That’s the not-so-good news.
Be sure to pass this along to any NRA survivalists you know. They’ll immediately spend the next three months in caves and remote cabins shivering in fear until their food runs out, and be out of our hair for a while. By the time they reappear, naked, shivering, and no longer toilet trained, Chelyabinsk will have fixed up the damages done by the meteoroid (mostly broken windows) and hopefully all the injured will have made full recoveries.
What happened there isn’t really that uncommon. Earth gets hit by objects that size two or three times a century on average. Most hit in uninhabited regions, in the oceans or in the millions of square miles where humans are sparse or nonexistent, such as the polar regions or the Sahara. A bigger explosion, generally believed to be a meteor strike, hit in Siberia in 1908. We know about it because the sound traveled half-way around the world, and because we later discovered several hundred miles of forest that had been flattened by the blast. Nobody was hurt in that one.
Oh, darn. I just gave away the whole plot of my next novel. Oh, well. I did it for science.
This meteor will get far more attention (and panic) than that far bigger one just 105 years ago, because hundreds of video cameras caught it, and because people were hurt—about 1,000 people, mostly by flying broken glass—and because at least one building suffered major structural damage.
The strike did beat some pretty impressive odds anyway. Everyone was watching an asteroid that passed within 17,500 miles of earth this morning, at 1125 PST. By astronomical standards, that’s frighteningly close. Think of it being like having a 50-caliber round nick your earlobe. Disconcerting.
The odds of two such events at once have to be in the range of billions to one. Indeed, my immediate response was the belief that this had to be a preceding outrigger of 2012DA14, the asteroid in question. It’s not too unusual for asteroids to have clusters of other, smaller rocks around them. But Russia was on the wrong side of the planet at the time, and in the wrong hemisphere. Analysis of the meteoroid showed that it came from an entirely different direction. Completely unrelated.
What are the odds of such events in one day? Billions to one.
I felt a chill when I heard that it struck in Chelyabinsk. That was the locale of what at the time was the world’s worst nuclear accident (since exceeded by Chernobyl and Fukushima) at the top-secret Soviet plant at Mayak. It didn’t hit in any of the irradiated areas, and other nuclear plants in the region report no significant problems, so it’s ok to exhale again.
We’ve known for the better part of a century now that the solar system is something of a shooting gallery. We’ve come from disbelieving that stones could fall from the sky to realizing that not only are many features of the Moon and Mars the result of objects striking them, but that quite a few of our own planet’s features are the result of such strikes. Oh, and one big strike sixty-six million years ago is why we don’t have any dinosaurs about. We’ve had the strike in Siberia, and more recently, the spectacular collision between parts of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet and Jupiter which resulted in earth-sized explosions on the giant planet’s face. Something else hit Jupiter just six months ago with the force of a large nuclear weapon. We still don’t know what that was all about.
Most of the debris in space that might hit us lies between us and the sun. We know it’s there, and we track some of the bigger ones that we know about. Chances are for every one we know about, there’s thousands we haven’t spotted yet. Space is big. Even the space scopes—Hubble, Kepler, and this year’s Gaia—can only cover a tiny fraction of one percent of the sky at any given moment, so they aren’t likely to notice an object big enough to do damage, like this morning’s. Or even something bigger. The one that hit this morning was from inside our orbit. They are hard to predict over a long period of time because as they pass near Mercury, Venus, or Earth, that affects their orbits, and they affect one another in small but sometimes significant amounts.
What are the odds of something really big hitting us, say in the next ten years?
Millions to one against.
But the odds of the two events happening on the same day were even more stacked, more improbable. That should make anyone pause to consider.
We need to work on a more comprehensive way of tracking near earth objects. We might not be able to do anything about something really big that comes our way, but we can deflect smaller stuff that is big enough to cause significant damage.
And we need to keep working to get humans off earth and on other planets. As Heinlein said over half a century ago, we can’t keep on just keeping all our eggs in one basket.
Today’s events show that high odds don’t preclude the possibility that we may be the universe’s next omelet.
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