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Will Earth Need A Reboot After The Sky Falls?

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Earth has been hit and is constantly at risk of attack by interlopers from space. These are called “near earth objects” (NEOs). Major players are asteroids. Most burn harmlessly during their trip through the atmosphere. However, just as in the intensely mediocre films, Armageddon and Deep Impact, there is more than a zero chance that a large one will threaten earth in the near future.

Quietly in the background of our already nervous world, scientists have been making plans for how to prevent a catastrophe whether or not Bruce Willis is available. NASA recently presented its report to Congress. More recently Rusty (Russell) Schweickart, lashed out at NASA for a recent study on the threat from NEOs (Near Earth Objects) impacting our planet. Schweickart was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 9. He is now Chairman of the B612 Foundation and a member of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) where he is on the Committee on Near Earth Objects.

B612 is a group of astronomers, astronauts and scientific specialists who have dedicated time to working on methods to deflect the orbit of asteroids in order to prevent another catastrophic “event” like the 1908 Tunguska explosion which has been shown to have been caused by a 45-50 meter diameter asteroid exploding in Siberia. It destroyed 2000 square kilometers of Siberian forest “… and maybe a few reindeer.” Schweickart noted that, "Had it hit a couple of hours later it might have wiped out London or Moscow…”

Both groups call for early warning detection systems, “deflection capability”, and an ability to coordinate the responses internationally. The possibilities of such an impact are becoming less as time goes on. Partly because we are now cataloging the objects that present possibly dangerous trajectories.

By 2019, he said, there will be more than 10,000 objects “…with a non-zero probability of impacting Earth." “A non-zero probability.” What great euphemisms scientists can invent!

At this time, we were warned, there is no one and no agency of the U.S. government or of any other on the planet that is responsible for dealing with the potential threat nor for developing “Mission Rules” for the deflection of NEOs.

In true astronaut-geek speak Schweickart warned that there is “… the possibility-in an evolutionary sense-of a Control-Alt-Delete; a reboot of the evolutionary system that has already occurred many times on Earth."

"If we do our homework right, never again should an asteroid that can do damage on the ground impact the Earth," Schweickart suggested. "We're living at a time — with our technology — we have the capability to eliminate this major shaper of evolution – the evolution of life on this planet."

The “Tunguska Event” was the catastrophe in Siberia that is now accepted as the explosion of an asteroid above Tunguska in deserted Siberia in June, 1908. The 100th anniversary is next year. Start planning your Chicken Little parties early.

It was early morning 30 June, 1908. Witnesses, of which there were few, recalled in recently translated testimony that they saw a fireball falling from the sky as far as 110 miles away. Seismic recordings were made 600 miles away and 40 miles from the event people were knocked down or knocked into unconsciousness. The closest witnesses were “reindeer herders” about 20 miles away who were blown out of their tents into the air. "Everything around was shrouded in smoke and fog from the burning fallen trees," said one witness. Another man was blown into a tree and died later according to a report by the Planetary Science Institute . Russian scientists interviewed people from the Vanavara Trading Post. One translated account included, "I saw the sky in the north open to the ground and fire poured out. The fire was brighter than the sun. We were terrified, but the sky closed again and immediately afterward, bangs like gunshots were heard. We thought stones were falling… I ran with my head down and covered, because I was afraid stones may fall on it."

Since the object, now believed to have been a meteorite of about 30 meters (98 feet) traveling at 15 km per second (9.3 miles per second), exploded before impact; there is no crater. A scientific group in 1993 studied the records and were later corroborated when Russian scientists found rocks of the same composition as “common stone meteorites” blasted into trees at the site. It was the kind of Earth-altering event that is thought to happen relatively often in planetary time.

(The photo of the Tungaska site is from the 1927 Kulik expedition)

He noted that the force of the blast was about that of 10-15 million tons of TNT and that an atmospheric shock wave circled the globe twice. Fine dust permeated the atmosphere sufficiently that “…for two days afterwards, there was so much fine dust in the atmosphere that newspapers could be read at night by scattered light in the streets of London, 10,000 km (6,213 miles) away.”

A Russian scientist believes that the Tunguska Event was responsible for global warming rather than man-made gases. Vladimir Shaidurov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, theorizes that water vapor thrown into the earth's meteorological system is the cause of present climatological change. “Andrew E. Dessler of the Texas A & M University, writing in The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change, claims that: "Human activities do not control all greenhouse gases, as the most powerful greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is water vapor. Human activities have little direct control over its atmospheric abundance, which is controlled instead by the worldwide balance between evaporation from the oceans and precipitation."

The English version of Pravda on-line recently offered the theory again that it was caused by a UFO. It is not a very compelling theory but the fact that there is an English version of Pravda and that it reads like a super-market tabloid was a fascinating aside in this research.

The NASA/JPL photo of Asteroid 243, Ida and Dactyl (Asteroid and her satellite) was shot by the Galileo spacecraft in 1993 on its way to Jupiter at 10,500 km (6500 miles) from the pair.

In 2002 Earth had a “close shave.” Asteroid 2002MN became one of only 6 recorded asteroids to penetrate within the orbit of the moon. Astronomically that is surprisingly close. Especially since it was only discovered 3 hours after its closest shave with a defenseless planet. It came within 12,000 km (7,457 miles) which is 0.0008 astronomical units (distance from Earth to Sun). If it had hit it would have been as powerful as Tunguska – equal to a few H-bombs and it was too small to be in the group that we are to be planning defenses against.

The March, 2007 report NASA gave Congress (of which astronaut Schweickart complained) is available as a pdf download from NASA .

“The objectives of the George E. Brown, Jr. NEO Survey Program are to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize the physical characteristics of NEOs equal to or larger than 140 meters in diameter with a perihelion distance of less than 1.3 AU (Astronomical Units) from the Sun, achieving 90 percent completion of the survey within 15 years after enactment of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. The Act was signed into law by President Bush on December 30, 2005.”

Whichever group of astronomers, scientists and assorted world-shakers is correct, they seem to agree on the danger and the need to plan for a response. As if we didn't have enough to worry about already. It is time to listen to Chicken Little: the sky might fall. We now have or could have methods to protect the current version of Earth without needing an evolutionary reboot — “restart” for Mac-lovers.

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About hfdratch

  • High Heels

    I really enjoyed this article! Very informative and lively…. thanks. *Ducks for cover in a tin hat*

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Very well written, sir..

    I knew a lot of this stuff – planning for such world altering events is my little “specialty” in public administration. You know, an earthquake hits Jerusalem, collapses the Temple Mount, etc… How does Haim Yisraeli get to the makolet to buy eggs, who collects the garbage…

    Anyway, back to Tunguska. Such an event can be prevented, if it can be prevented at all, from a great distance from earth – like out near Mars or something. It has to be detected real early, and blown up into little bits in such a way that the pieces do not this way come. The trouble with such ideas is the law of unintended consequences. But either you take the risk or you don’t.

    The other possible solution would be to try to install little rockets in the meteorite that would direct it away from here.

  • Little fart

    My Daisy BB gun can destroy any assterhemroid before it hit’s the earth unless it’s headed for San Fran. They could just throw condoms and dildo’s at it.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Contrary to the celluloid ravings of Hollywood, blowing up an asteroid with Earth’s name on it would only make things worse. Instead of one large lump of rock on a collision course you would have many smaller lumps, still on a collision course and still with the same total mass, and now new and improved with lots of lovely radioactive fallout.

    And distance wouldn’t necessarily improve the odds any. Remember Comet Shoemaker-Levy that lost an argument with Jupiter a few years back? The comet broke up into several pieces some time before the collision, but still impacted with enough force to have obliterated Earth if we had been unfortunate enough to get in the way.

    A much more boring, but better way to avert a collision would be, as Ruvy points out, to strap a few rocket boosters to the surface of the object and gently persuade it to wander off in another direction. They wouldn’t need to be huge honkin’ boosters, either – a couple of ion rocket engines would probably do the trick.

    All of this, of course, is contingent on our identifying the nasty before it actually slams into us. Not easy.

  • Dr Dreadful

    #3: sr, just how many frickin’ aliases do you need? You realize that the more alter egos you have, the greater the chance that one of them will be hit by a meteorite.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Hey, DD, you don’t happen to have a couple of them ion engines in the back yard that I could borry and strap to me back. I was plannin’ to fly into J-lem to do Sabbath shopping and save on bus fare. Twenty two shekels back and forth each day adds up, you know…

    Anything big enough to move an assteroid around should propel me also…

  • Dr Dreadful

    A bit like James Bond in – which movie was it? You Only Live Twice, I think.

    Unfortunately, ion rocket technology provides (a) very low thrust/weight ratio and (b) slow acceleration, so for journeys not measured in astronomical units (such as Jerusalem and back from, well, pretty much anywhere on the planet) you’d probably still be better off taking the bus.

    However, I do have a prototype warp drive in my shed. I’ll let you know once I’ve perfected it.

  • Little fart

    Dear Doctor Dragfuller. Would like to work with you on your prototype warp drive. I have a Flux Capasiter fueled with Dilitium crystal’s. I keep them stored in toilet paper roll’s. My fomula which I cant disclose will be sent to you by snail mail. MC=23/6.=458/Neptune may give you a small clue. Make sure you dont mix 458 with peanut butter or mustard.

  • Andrei Ol’khovatov

    “A scientific group in 1993 studied the records and were later corroborated when Russian scientists found rocks of the same composition as “common stone meteorites” blasted into trees at the site.
    Some strange statement. Till now overwhelming majority of the Russian [Tunguska] researchers think that no any substance of the hypothetical “Tunguska spacebody” is discovered.

  • Dr Dreadful

    It’s thought that the object which hit Earth above Tunguska exploded in the upper atmosphere, resulting in widespread blast damage but no crater.

  • Christopher Rose

    Ruvy, your scenario of destroying Earth-threatening objects in space is absolutely wonderful – except for the minor detail that we do not currently have the technology to do it.

    The main problem with all such potential disasters is that the majority of such objects are not tracked properly and we would probably only become aware of the danger a few seconds before the offending item struck us.

  • MAOZ

    Ruvy, I reckon after something like this, Haim Yisraeli can forget about going to the makolet to buy eggs. The chickens have no doubt all been scared sh*&*less, and the only thing they’re laying is bets — on who’s next in the henhouse to come down with the flu.

    And on that cheery note, I wish you a hearty Shabbat Shalom!

  • Alec

    Think billiards. It might be interesting to try to redirect such an object into Jupiter or Saturn (large masses which might be able to absorb the object’s impact, even though this might be a dicey proposition). Blowing it to bits within the solar system might have all kinds of negative consequences, such as millions of tiny particles which might damage satellites or (if done near Mars) render future space exploration more dangerous. Simply re-directing it away from Earth without an ability to track it or to project its future path or which in the intermediate future sends it directly into a more dangerous body might simply be substituting one disaster for another.

    The fun thing here is that as we become more aware of and play more above our planet’s surface, the more we have to begin thinking with an awareness of space and of Earth as part of a larger cosmic neighborhood, not just with a terrestrial logic.

    Or, to break it down, more simply, as Spock said of Khan’s limitations as a starship captain in Star Trek II:

    He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates 2 dimensional thinking.