The universe can be a very dangerous place, as we have often been told when viewing recent documentaries on the likes of the History, National Geographic or Science channels.
Last week’s coincidental combo of both a Russian meteor explosion and an asteroid near-miss seemed like a real-life version of the movie “Deep Impact.” In this 1998 American-made science fiction disaster flick, we observe the world responding to a seven-mile-wide comet headed for earth and bent on mass extinction, much in the same fashion as the one that purportedly destroyed the dinosaurs eons ago.
2012 DA14, the name assigned to the asteroid, aka Near Earth Object (NEO), came within 17,200 miles, the equivalent of two Earth diameters. It may have been only a paltry 50 meters across, but even at this smallish size it would have delivered 3.5 megatons of kinetic energy to our landscape and caused enormous destruction if it had made contact.
One has to ponder whether the Mayans had predicted this close fly-by, understanding their proclivity for recognizing repeating patterns in the heavens. The orbit of this asteroid around the Sun was almost identical to our own, but the plane of its flight was almost vertical, traversing our planet from south to north in its path. The Mayan long-count calendar was often misinterpreted, as experts had warned, to predict to a cataclysmic event on Dec. 21, 2012, when a new “b'ak'tun,” or 7,885-solar-year period, commenced. Nothing transpired, but were they off by just a smidge?
Whether their insights were self-generated, handed down from their Mesoamerican ancestors, or delivered to them by ancient aliens (another popular notion) has been debated for years. The simple fact is that they were able project with extreme accuracy the positions of the planets and most anything else that moved in the night or day sky. Could they have known about 2012 DA14? Did we miss a cataclysmic event by just a few miles and a mere 56 days? Did a rounding error creep into the Mayans’ long-term calculations?
While these conjectures may soon be the topic of discussion on many media channels, this idea is not new news, nor was the potential collision with this latest NEO not on the radar screen. 2012 DA14 was actually discovered on Feb. 23, 2012, nearly a full year ago. Cries of “Incoming!” soon filled the airwaves, and calls went out for Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood, action heroes in other meteor disaster epics, to save earth from imminent destruction. Allusions to the Mayan calendar also gained prominence.
But we were lucky this go around. The asteroid came closer to Earth than any other previously recorded space rock in our times, but, fortunately, it chose to move on. We are not, however, out of the woods yet. Scientists warn that “there are more than a million near-Earth asteroids smaller than 100 meters.” Odds for a direct impact are roughly one in 1,200, a good thing, but such an impact would destroy a small town or city if it were to land near a populated area.
The meteor that burned up over Chelyabinsk, a city in Russia about 1,500 kilometers east of Moscow beyond the Ural Mountains, was quite another story. Experts now believe this space rock was larger and heavier than first estimated—55 feet long and weighing 10,000 tons. It came out of nowhere and took scientists by surprise.
While one might intuitively think that these two astronomical events were related, the evidence suggests otherwise. The flight path of the meteor’s smoke trail was oriented northeast to southwest, while the orbit orientation of 2012 DA14 was more south to north. The fact that both events occurred within a 16-hour time span is pure coincidence, but disconcerting that such a shootout could take place in such quick succession in our little nook of the universe.
The meteor explosion did cause damage and human injuries, but not on the scale of the famous Russian Tunguska event, an enormously powerful explosion that occurred near the river of that name in 1908. Several Russian citizens were quick to film the current event with their cell-phone cameras. Many of these have gone viral on YouTube, but a few of these reveal an interesting twist. Just before the explosion, another object appears to approach the meteor from behind, pass through it, and then escape after the explosion. Alien enthusiasts will have a field day with these clips.
There was one more coincidence related to these two separate events. At this same moment in time, a special United Nations committee was also in session in Vienna. The 50th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was in progress, and both space rock events became top agenda items.
Ray Williamson, a senior advisor to the Secure World Foundation and in attendance at the Vienna gathering, noted, “This event in Russia and the pass of the larger asteroid 2012 DA14 are good reminders that many thousands of objects like it pass near Earth daily. … Work is continuing within the United Nations on developing international responses to future threatening asteroids. Given the uncertainties concerning where such asteroids might strike Earth and how much damage they might do, international responses will be critical.”
Astronomers are continually tracking potentially errant asteroids from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, as well as from the Kuiper belt, which is 20 times larger but on the outskirts of our solar system. Planetary gravitational forces can often dislodge one of these behemoths and send it on a different orbital trajectory. We can take some solace in the fact that our Earth’s gravitational pull actually distorted the orbit of 2012 DA14. Its orbital period has been reduced to 317 days, and our next close encounter will not be until 2046 from 1.3 million miles away. Phew! That’s a relief.
Do we have an effective early warning system in place today? For asteroids, yes, but why were there no warnings about the Russian meteor disaster? Could we even alter the course of one of these life-threatening space rocks if we had to? This is not a time for Congress to be cutting back on budgets related to scientific research or reducing incentives for children to become enamored with science and technology. Necessity is the mother of invention, and progress requires continuing investments. Lean Forward!
References: Embedded links provided, but points made are primarily the opinion of the author.