The Storm of Space Rocks: Nothing to Worry About—For Now

Today's Russian meteor and later flyby of a big asteroid are no cause for panic—but they are a cause for vigilance

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OLEG KARGOPOLOV / AFP / Getty Images

Workers repair a power line which was damaged by a shockwave from a meteor in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, on Feb.15, 2013.

Alright people, let’s move on. Nothing to see here. You know that asteroid of death that whizzed by Earth today at an altitude that’s actually below some of our satellites? You know that meteor that exploded in the skies over Russia today, injuring nearly 1,000 people? And you know all that speculation that they’re somehow connected—that the Earth has stumbled into some kind of storm-front of space rocks, any one of which will annihilate us eventually? Forget it. The two incidents have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and neither one should cause us all that much worry. Yet.

(VIDEO: TIME Explains: An Asteroid Buzzes the Earth)

It’s fair to say that if you live in the city of Chelyabinsk just to the east of Russia’s Ural mountains, you don’t want to be told that the blast that shook the region on an otherwise brilliantly clear day is nothing to worry about. At 9:20 AM local time, what is thought to have been a 10-ton rock moving 33,000 mph (54,000 k/h) exploded at an altitude of 18 to 32 miles (30 to 50 km), producing a several kiloton blast that damaged at least 270 buildings, sent hundreds of people streaming to hospitals for lacerations from flying glass and other debris and caused 20,000 emergency response workers to be mobilized. So that ain’t nothing. And after all the talk about the planet’s just-passed close shave with a much larger, 70-ton, 150 ft. (45 m) asteroid, it’s no wonder people are skittish.

But as Time reports in this week’s edition (available to subscribers here), this is nothing new. Earth has always lived in a cosmic shooting gallery, one that sends about 100 tons of debris plunging into our atmosphere every day. Most of it is no bigger than a pea and burns up long before it hits the ground, but we get at least one basketball-sized object every day too and at least one rock as big as a small car every few months. Much larger pieces come along less frequently—but inevitably.

(MOREThe Committee to Save the Planet: Who Watches the Asteroids?)

With that kind of steady storm from deep space, it’s inevitable that a couple of big objects will arrive around the same time or even on the same day. Indeed, it probably happens a lot more than we realize, but we’ve begun paying only attention recently. It was in 1995 that Congress charged NASA with the job of keeping a constant watch on the skies and cataloguing all of the so-called near-Earth objects (NEOs) in our cosmic neighborhood, particularly the ones that could threaten the Earth. The big asteroid that flew by today, known simply as 2012 DA14, was discovered just last year and would have gone by totally unnoticed if we hadn’t been looking for it. The Russian meteor was much smaller and thus harder to detect, and may have approached from the direction of the sun, which can blind telescopes the same way it can partially blind you if you look straight up in the sky trying to follow, say, a plane.

But even if the Chelyabinsk blast was a routine thing—as far as exploding space rocks go, at least—that doesn’t mean that asteroid ordnance poses no danger. If 2012 DA14 had plunged through the atmosphere, it would have produced a 2.4 megaton blast, equivalent to 180 Hiroshima bombs. Russia already knew a thing or two about that kind of devastation: in 1908, a 330 ft. (100 m) asteroid exploded over the Tunguska region in the central part of the country, producing a 30 megaton blast—about 1,000 Hiroshimas—and leveling trees across 830 sq. mi. (2,150 sq. km).

(VIDEO: Meteorite Crashes Over Russia)

To defend against this kind of armageddon, NASA and other space agencies are working on ways to deflect incoming asteroids when they’re still years away from Earth—a relatively straightforward technology that involves rendezvousing with the objects and firing a heavy impactor into them, something NASA has done before to study comets and asteroids and sample their composition. But drawing-board technology is not the same as actual hardware, and it’s imperative that our good ideas are translated into in-the-hangar spacecraft.

The Chelyabinsk meteor and 2012 DA14 were never going to be doomsday objects, but they ought to be wake-up calls. Space is a crazy, crowded, messy place—and like it or not, we live there.

MORE: Asteroid Hits Earth! How the Doomsday Scenario Would Play Out

15 comments
mrbomb13
mrbomb13 like.author.displayName 1 Like

What this article is:  A speculative puff-piece.

What this article accomplished:  Re-stating well-known current events (i.e. Russian meteorite), and speculating on an unknown future.

What this article failed to provide:  A reason for being published, and wasting precious minutes of my life.

What this article represents:  The reason why TIME Magazine's revenues and readership is declining, and why it's losing relevancy as a news source.

steelgoat67
steelgoat67

I think those "precious" minutes of your life wasted are solely the fault of your own if you think so little of TIME, still continue to peruse their articles, and take the time to vomit your thoughts about it on their messageboards.

sedjak
sedjak

The newest NASA estimates of the size of the meteorite are as follows:  17 meters ~ 55ft across, 10,000 ton mass, 300 kiloton energy (20 Hiroshimas).  This is way bigger than 10-ton, several kiloton blast mentioned in the article.

MoisesIssi
MoisesIssi like.author.displayName 1 Like

Juust a thought here!

Why don't we work to deflect large objects in a collision course with Earth to collide with Mars instead? Hopefully, one of those big ones would raise so much dust into Martian atmosphere that it would create a greenhouse effect that would melt the polar cups producing an atmosphere in the process.

They say the devil is in the details, and I think that while it may sound what I just wrote plausible, maybe the effects or the math doesn't add up completely.

But what the heck!  To those who are paying attention.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@MoisesIssi It would take far too much energy and isn't likely to work.  

Not that i'm a scientist, but i would imagine even if you could get the asteroid to impact Mars, there isn't enough of an atmosphere to hold the dust that gets kicked up and would cool the planet further (by blocking out the sun), not heat it up. 

MoisesIssi
MoisesIssi like.author.displayName 1 Like

@tom.litton @MoisesIssi Well, to your first point, it all depends on the impact of collision and the size of the object. If the speed of impact is high enough, it could carry the desired amount of energy and really make a dent. After all, speed is free in space. To your second point, I think the dust is way to heavy to run out into space. I don't think it would be able to escape the pull of Mars. But then again, the devil is in the details and the numbers.

steelgoat67
steelgoat67

It'd be all for naught; without a magnetosphere, the solar winds will blow what ever is accumulated. To crank up one of those magnetospheres, you need a geologically active molten core - which Mars doesn't have, sadly.

With enough detection time, it's relatively simple to nudge and influence the course of an asteroid - anything from landing some thrusters on it, hitting it with enough mass, or even attaching some sails and letting the sun do the work are among many ways. One cute idea I heard was attaching a device on the surface of the asteroid which, as it mines the surface of it, it ejects the spoils out into space at speed (otherwise known as reaction-mass). Even having an object float nearby the asteroid will alter it's course through very minute gravitational influences. All of these ideas are only applicable if time is a commodity - that is, months or years in advance.

As for "HOLY CR@P! IT'S GONNA HIT US IN 19 DAYS!" sort of things.... maybe hit it with a mass driver at an oblique angle?

MoisesIssi
MoisesIssi

@tom.litton @MoisesIssi Well, the amount of energy to divert the asteroid would decrease as you plan the event earlier and earlier into a future impact. As a thought, detonating an atomic bomb inside a large asteroid would not destroy it but could force it to change course, maybe a couple of inches, but enough. Again the math.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@MoisesIssi @tom.litton My first point was about the amount of energy it would take to alter the course of an asteroid large enough to do what you want.

My second point is that the debris would go up into the air and then immediately fall back down, because the atmosphere isn't thick enough to hold it up there for any length of time.  

niklasrgustafsson
niklasrgustafsson

I have an idea. Why not ask the dinosaurs if they thought of the asteroids as a threat ?  ;-)

tom.litton
tom.litton like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@niklasrgustafsson

“The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!”
Larry Niven

commentonitall
commentonitall

Interesting that two of the largest explosions caused by asteroids recently happened in Russia, the odds of that are pretty unlikely.  Wonder if Russia is sitting on a giant chunk of ore that is magnetized?

auronlu
auronlu

@commentonitall The rock's coming in at 56,000 miles per hour. Somehow I don't think a puny little magnet is going to adjust its trajectory.

On the other hand, Siberia is ginormous.  If I used this Long/Lat calculator correctly, the impacts were over 1500 miles apart:

http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/cvm-cgi-bin/latlongdist.pl