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Duck and Cover: Asteroids…Coming to a Crater Near You

March 27, 2010 5 comments

This post makes the cat nervous. As it should.

I was in Seattle this past week at a work-related conference [this is not what makes the cat nervous though simply thinking about work does it for me]. During a rant discussion I was having with my colleagues I mentioned something that I am fond of bringing up simply for its shock value and to prove that we live with our heads in the ground. As a side-effect of having colleagues who are much more technical than I they will typically call me on many of my facts opinions and then I have to prove that I was not just trying to win a bet argument, but making a salient point of utter importance to no one in particular the human race.

Which brings me to today’s rant post.

Asteroids. They are the stuff of legend, cartoons and movies.

We don’t really care all that much about asteroids even though they do bring with them the risk of the end of the world…or as we like to call it back home: last call at the bar.

This week’s disputed fact: did the Earth miss becoming an omelet by 6 hours back in 1989 (I originally stated 1987, but the year was not the point in dispute; the actual event was so I won’t go to Trivial Pursuit prison for being off by 2 years)?

The answer is…drum roll, please…yes (also known as I Was Right). To quote from CNN Interactive:

On March 23, 1989, an asteroid about a half-mile wide crossed the Earth’s orbit about 400,000 miles from Earth. The Earth had been in that same spot a mere six hours earlier.

[Scroll down to the fifth paragraph..or use Find on your browser (you know, Ctrl+F. Press the Control key and the F key at the same time…you know, with two fingers…preferably with one hand…one hand…that’s two. Whatever).]

Score! Second source confirmation! And CNN no less, not that bastion of truth the National Enquirer.

So, in case no one caught the real point of the factoid: we missed the End of the World party by 6 hours. 6 hours! You see? There are advantages to being fashionably late…or not showing up at all.

According to the Wikipedia article on near-earth objects (and everything in Wikipedia is true, isn’t it?):

If the asteroid had impacted it would have created the largest explosion in recorded history, thousands of times more powerful than the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear bomb ever exploded by man.

[Perhaps Daniel Faraday should have used Tsar Bomba instead of Jughead to better effect…oh, wait, he succeeded. Never mind.]

Also from the above CNN story:

On October 9, 1992, a meteorite smashed through the rear end of a car in Peekskill, New York. No one was hurt, but the Chevy Malibu was totaled.

The GEICO gecko must have been quite upset; I’m sure the Malibu wasn’t thrilled either.

In the course of looking for stories about the 1989 near-collision I came across another interesting story: Australia, the wonderful land down under, almost hosted its own End-of-the-World rehearsal:

At 12.40 yesterday morning, as the city slept, a previously unknown asteroid swept about 60,000 kilometres over the south-western Pacific.

In astronomical terms it was a close call. Estimated to be between 30 metres and 50 metres wide, it passed almost seven times closer than the moon.

In 1908 an object possibly up to 50 metres across flattened some 2000 square kilometres of Siberian forest.

The above happened…wait for it…March 2, 2010. Yes, that was just over 3 weeks ago. An object close to, or equivalent to, the Tunguska meteor, missed Earth by 37,283 miles. Before you think that is plenty far reread what the article stated: that is almost seven times closer than the moon (for the mathematically challenged: the moon, on average, is 238,857 miles from the Earth. If the Australian meteor missed us by 37, 283 miles that means that it was 1/6.4 the distance to the moon…in other words less than 1/7 of the distance to the moon). Not exactly walking distance, but in astronomical terms the bullet missed us because we breathed in instead of out.

So how does this affect the human race and you in particular? For most of you: not at all. Go back to drinking.

For the rest of you: if you are wondering if anyone on this planet is even looking at stray pieces of rock heading our way the answer is also yes. NASA published a 115-page paper titled Spaceguard Survey which discusses the hazards of asteroid and comet impacts. Any person or group that scans the skies for large near-earth objects is considered to be part of the Spaceguard goal; in other words we spend more money on candy bars than on figuring out how to avoid joining the dinosaurs.

BTW, 1989FC, the official name of the March 1989 asteroid, is four times larger than the Tunguska meteoroid. It crosses our path again in 2012. Maybe the Mayans were right. Watch the skies!

The cat is happy to be in the box.

The Importance of Gloating

There is an old saying: would you rather be happy or right? Fighting about these things is counter-productive; be both.

[Update 12/31/11: Feel like helping track near-earth asteroids? Go to http://orbit.psi.edu/oah/ and donate your spare computer time using BOINC software!]

Interesting Pictures

The fireball produced by the Tsar Bomba: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tsar01.jpg

Interesting Articles

The CNN Interactive article: http://www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9803/12/collision/index.html

Australian Meteor Craters: http://www.abc.net.au/science/k2/trek/4wd/Over11.htm

Tunguska Event: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunguska_event

Dealing with the Threat of an Asteroid Striking the Earth, April 1990 (mentions the March 1989 asteroid): http://pdf.aiaa.org/downloads/publicpolicypositionpapers/Asteroid-1990.pdf

When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombies Infection: http://www.mathstat.uottawa.ca/~rsmith/Zombies.pdf (okay, so this has nothing to do with meteors or asteroids. The title of this section is Interesting Articles not Interesting Articles That Have Nothing to Do with Zombies.)

ZOMBIE ATTACK, Disaster Preparedness Simulation: http://www.astro.ufl.edu/~jybarra/zombieplan.pdf (read previous rationalization)

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Categories: Incoherent, Miscellaneous