Apocalypse by asteroid inevitable; cut loose

With the end of shopping period comes a redirection of our intellects to loftier pursuits. And I don’t mean politics.

I literally mean the lofty skies above us.

Last night, 2007 TU24, a 24-billion-kilogram asteroid, 250 meters in diameter, traveled within 344,384 miles of Earth. Though seemingly far away, at a mere 1.4 times the distance that separates the moon and earth, the asteroid, which wasn’t visible to the naked eye, came a little too close for comfort.

As you might have guessed, the 2007 in the asteroid’s name refers to when it was first spotted: Oct. 11, 2007. With only 110 days between now and the time of the 2007 TU24’s discovery, had the asteroid taken an errant course headed for the earth, there would have been precious little time for Bruce Willis to finish filming “Die Hard 5” before we needed him to fly into space to nuke it to pieces.

According to an article written by Michael Paine for SPACE.com, entitled “To Nuke or to Nudge,” blowing up any asteroid would be a terrible idea. The asteroid fragments would still be large enough to penetrate our ozone (if only we had used less CFC-based hairspray in the ’80s). Blowing up an asteroid headed toward earth would be similar to splitting a single bullet into a shotgun blast. The effect is the same — death for the receiving party. Not to mention the fact that we don’t have sufficient nuclear weapons to blow up a large doomsday asteroid, anyway.

How big would a doomsday asteroid be, you ask?

Britt Scharringhausen, a professor at Beloit College, estimates, in an online article written for Cornell’s Department of Astronomy, that an asteroid with a diameter of 10 kilometers or more would wreak extensive havoc on the earth’s surface, eliminating most life on the planet. An asteroid of this size is believed to have struck the earth 65 million years ago, ending the reign of dinosaurs.

Instead of using nuclear weapons, a variety of other methods afford us a bit of flexibility. I am not the first to propose that we send a really heavy spaceship to smash into the asteroid, changing its course ever so slightly. Or, as former astronauts Edward T. Lu and Stanley Love suggest, we could send a spaceship to orbit near the asteroid and create a secondary gravitational pull to redirect the asteroid. Finally, we could mount a giant solar sail on the asteroid and use solar pressure to redirect the object’s course.

My biggest concern, when the threat of deadly asteroids looms in space, is our apparent lack of detection capability. All of these solutions strike me as being nice on paper, but in 2002, a 50 to 120 meter asteroid missed the earth by a mere 75,000 miles. It was not discovered by astronomers until three days after its closest pass of us! An object of roughly that size exploded a few kilometers above Russia in 1908, in what was known as the Tunguska Event, which resulted in an explosion that was estimated at 1,000 times the force of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Roughly 80 million trees in a 830-square-mile area were felled by the blast — remember, the 2007 TU24 is at least two to three times as large.

NASA claims that all asteroids 140 meters and larger that have a chance of colliding with earth will be under their observation by 2020. So in the mean time, we just need to keep glancing over our shoulders for falling debris. For example, a U.S. spy satellite is currently descending to Earth in an out-of-control orbit. Slated to make impact in late February, the satellite, which weighs a mere 10 tons, doesn’t pose a significant threat other than the full tank of toxic rocket fuel that will descend with it.

The moral of the story is that our doom in the form of a wayward asteroid may be speeding toward us right now, and even the NASA astronomers wouldn’t necessarily see it coming. In this time of uncertainty, we might as well live it up, ditch class a little more, mend some fences and try a little harder in our love lives. After all, having someone to hold as the world ends is always nice.

Brian C. Thompson is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

Comments

  • lisa w

    We were lucky this time, but how long before our luck runs out, nice article

    from lisa in the Uk