February 19th, 2013 at 1:00 pm
“This strange happenstance of the DA 14 flyby and the Chelyabinsk explosion on the same day is a wake up call about how little we know actually know about space, even in our own region of the Solar System. What else is lurking around out there getting ready to give us a nasty surprise?”—Claude Piantadosi
Last week we featured Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration, by Claude Piantadosi. Of course, at the end of last week a meteor hit earth and underscored Piantadosi’s argument that we need to continue study space. In the following post, Piantadosi recounts his reactions to last week’s event and what it means for science:
I arrived at the laboratory rather early last Friday morning and bumped into my colleague Dr. Jim Logan, who told me that a large meteor had just burst in the air over Russia—injuring more than a thousand people with flying glass and other debris.
“Jim,” I said, a little taken aback, “I thought your old NASA buddies claimed that this thing was supposed to miss us by 17,000 miles.”
“This was not Asteroid 2012 DA14,” he shot back. “This rock came in on a totally different trajectory.”
“Really; now that’s quite a coincidence. Thank goodness for the atmosphere,” I told him. “And knock on wood, still no human in recorded history has ever been killed by a meteor.”
“True… but millions of dinosaurs can’t say the same thing,” he said. “In fact, you could argue that if it wasn’t for the massive asteroid impact 65 million years ago, there wouldn’t be any humans.”
And if we have a repeat of that episode, there won’t be any humans left either.
According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the so-called Chelyabinsk meteor was a rock 55 feet in diameter, weighing 10,000 tons, and traveling at some 40,000 mph when it hit our atmosphere and exploded. It was the largest air burst in a hundred years— since Tunguska in 1908. And the blast was estimated to be about 500 kilotons, the explosive force of 30 Hiroshima-sized bombs.
This strange happenstance of the DA 14 flyby and the Chelyabinsk explosion on the same day is a wake up call about how little we know actually know about space, even in our own region of the Solar System. What else is lurking around out there getting ready to give us a nasty surprise? Indeed, we are just beginning to catalog and track these objects, for instance, through the NASA/JPL Near-Earth Object Program, which has been in existence only since 1998.
In one respect, ignorance is bliss; we simply do not have the technology to protect ourselves from collisions with such high-velocity celestial bodies. However, we do have the technology to detect, categorize, and track these projectiles, and when it comes to that, as it inevitably will, to move people out of harm’s way. We must be sure that this first step is put into play and that the collection of this vital information remains a permanent part of our commitment to a meaningful, long-term strategy for space exploration. Perhaps over the next hundred years, we’ll develop the technological means to nudge these objects out of Earth-crossing orbits. But this set of circumstances does make one thing very clear: we simply cannot afford the struthonian approach of burying our heads in the sand.