By the time you read this, chances are 2012 DA14 will be a fond memory. The asteroid, about fifty meters in diameter, will soar some 27,520 kilometer over the Indonesian island of Sumatra at 1:25 PM Chicago time. No chances at all it’s going to hit anything, though it’s going to be watched closely, because Earth is gonna kick its orbit a bit and send it screaming off into the black. Though, again, there likely won’t be a lot of kicking, and definitely no scream, because we all know, no one can hear you scream in space.
Then again, if you were in Central Russia, near the Ural Mountains today, you didn’t need to wait for 2012 DA14; you had your own close encounter. A ten meter hunk or rock or ice flew in, lit up the sky, disintegrated and kicked out a sonic boom that broke windows for miles. Reports are that over five hundred people have been injured by flying glass, ’cause in Russia, meteors open windows on you!
I like the headlines, though: “Rare Russian Meteor Strike” is a misnomer if there ever was one. First, the meteor came apart in mid-air, so it was really a strike. And lets dress the “rare” part: Tunguska, anyone? Sure, it’s been more than a hundred years, but nature doesn’t want you to get complacent it likes you to know it’s got your ass in its hands, and it can take you out any time it feels. We don’t even have to go back one hundred years, thought: 12 February, 1947, Russia experienced the Sikhote-Alin meteorite strike, which touched down in the middle of nowhere–
Though if you want to make this last one a little scary, Sikhote-Alin occurred about four hundred fifty kilometers northeast of Vladivostok, and about five hundred kilometers due east of the Chinese city of Harbin. 1947 was a scary time: imagine the reaction of the Chinese if they’d had a huge meteor disintegrate above one of there cites. Not saying they’d have done anything–they were sort of busy with their own internal issues–but it might have made them go, “Hummm”.
These things happen all the time. There’s a lot of things out there in space, and we run into it every day. Most of the time were talking about something the size of a coffee cup burning up and making a bright flash for a second. Sometimes you get something like the object that shook up Russia, about thirty feet across, breaking up and leaving a loud boom in its wake.
And every so often you get a Tunguska: a hundred meters of rock air busting some five to ten kilometers up, developing an explosion like that of a fifteen megaton hydrogen bomb. Not the sort of thing Micheal Bay would screw with, save to take out Paris, but if this sucker had detonated over Russia this morning, the videos popping up would have been a lot different.
When people say, “Hey, what do we need science for? What good is a space program?” This is why. We’ve reached the point where it’s even money that a cosmic shot is going to take out something significant. People were injured by flying class today; in five years a slightly bigger rock might set a few fires with a heat burst and kill some people. Or maybe it’ll be a little larger than that, and people will once more have the opportunity to know what it was like in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a couple of dates in 1945.
This was the argument Arthur Clarke put forward in Rendezvous with Rama: after parts of Europe are devastated by a meteor breakup on a particularly lovely morning in 2077, the governments of Earth decided they couldn’t afford any more of these cosmic potshots, and beefed up their ability to detect these threats, and a way to move them the hell out of the way should it be necessary. There’s no reason we can’t start on this now; it only takes the willpower to make it happen. And don’t tell me about costs: take a NOLA/Sandy sized disaster, and start scaling up. As Clarke pointed out in Rama, Earth in 2077 couldn’t not afford another strike like the one that had taken out most of Northern Italy, and had sunk Venice.
And just to show you Arthur was on to something when he wrote in 1972 about an event that wouldn’t occur for another one hundred and five years: the date of his meteor strike was . . .
September 11, 2077.
He was just a writer; nothing to see here . . .