Danger in the sky

July 14, 2017

I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve looked up at the night sky in awe. And why not? We have a large moon that shines bright silver in the night sky, billions of stars in many colors and we’re discovering more out there every day.

But there can be danger in that beautiful sky.

That danger?

Asteroids.

Well, technically, that’s just one of many dangers out there. But it’s the most imminent as far as stuff from space that could kill us.

So, if you’ve gotten this far, you probably already know what an asteroid is. But, if you don’t, an asteroid is one of the many, many rocky bodies between Mars and Jupiter, in a region called the asteroid belt. They range in size from dust particles to the 1,000-mile across dwarf planet known as Ceres.

Asteroids are already part of the new space race, which includes human nations racing to return to the Moon and put humans on Mars.

There are not any plans to put humans on asteroids just yet. Our fastest space ship would take approximately three years and nine months to reach the belt.  Instead, the idea is that robotic miners may be sent there, because the rocky bodies being full of potential resources, which are in short supply here. One example is the asteroid 433 Eros, which potentially holds more gold than has ever been found on Earth. That means that the nation that sets up operations first, will wind up being the richest nation in the world.

Often, asteroids escape the Asteroid Belt and start heading for the sun to meet a fiery end. Occasionally, the Earth gets in the way.

More often than not, the asteroids that make it to Earth burn up in the atmosphere. But occasionally, due to either trajectory or size, enough of the asteroid makes it through to actually hit the Earth. That’s when they go from being asteroids to meteors.

And that is when they become dangerous.

We got a reminder of that in 2013 when an asteroid the size of a car exploded over the Chelyabinsk region in Russia. The Chelyabinsk event was caused by a car-sized asteroid exploding in the sky. It shattered windows and damaged buildings throughout the region, injuring hundreds of people.

The thing that made Chelyabinsk unforgettable was that, unlike events in the past, we had recordings of it happening. It looked like a ball of fire shooting from the sky with a purpose, ending in a flash of light, much like we’d picture a nuclear explosion.

It’s with this in mind that Asteroid Day was held last Friday. Asteroid Day was started in 2015 by astrophysicist Brian May, who may be better known to readers as the co-founder and lead guitarist of the band Queen.

And think about it. It seems appropriate that both his fields would involve Mercuries. One being a planet and the other being, of course, Freddie.

Anyway, May started Asteroid Day with three goals in mind:

• To learn about asteroids and the impact hazard they may pose

• To encourage plans be made to protect ourselves from asteroids

• To bring about global adoption of Asteroid Day, which has been achieved via United Nations recognition

It was for this reason June 30 was chosen to be Asteroid Day.

It was June 30, 1908, that the Tunguska event happened.

Once again, we’re back in Russia. On that day, the biggest, most devastating event that hardly anyone saw and left no recorded human deaths happened in the isolated Tunguska region of Siberia.

It was on that day that a meteorite, which some speculate was the size of the White House and moving 40-60 times the speed of sound, exploded in an airburst, flattening approximately 800 square miles of forest and killing lots and lots of reindeer.

The power of the Tunguska airburst is believed to have been the equivalent of 15 megatons of TNT, or 1,000 times that of Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Now imagine another Tunguska airburst, this time over a place like Memphis, Dallas or even St. Louis. The scale of devastation would be tremendous. Not only would those cities be taken out, but also pretty much ever major metro area of neighboring states, maybe the states on the other side of those.

So, next time June 30 comes around, keep that in mind.

And for goodness sakes, don’t call the space program useless.

Originally printed in the Batesville Daily Guard.
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