Pain in the Asteroids

asteroids_space_program

Yesterday, the twittervese erupted in a virtual smorgasbord of speculation over the apparent doomsday that scientist had failed to warn us about; death from above in the form of meteorites and asteroids. (They’ve been telling us about this for years, people) Armageddon no doubt is flying off the Wal-Mart $5 DVD shelf as we speak, and Aerosmith songs are blaring in bowling alleys from coast to coast.

Two events, occurring in coincidence of each other have drawn our collective attention on the fact that we live in a cosmic firing range — that our planet has been, is, and will be pelted with objects, both large and small, for all time. A small asteroid the size of a semi trailer hitting Russia, and Asteroid 2012da14 coming within 17,000 miles of planet Earth.

So where do all these rocks come from? Didn’t the solar system just sync up and start rotating like some sort of cosmic flash-mob?

Think of creating a solar system like a combo meal at Five Guys. You’ve got the center of our solar system, the sun. In this example, the burger. Hot, delicious action.  Closely orbiting around that is a well organized cup of fries. Neatly packed near the burger. These fries are our planets. All in their own little cup-orbit around our sun.

Anyone who has ever gotten this bag of sweet, greasy deliciousness knows that when you slop a mess of fries into that bag, you get the greatest gift of all…BAG FRIES! Loose fries that get mixed up, tossed out, and scattered throughout your sack of food; a sweet treat when you think you have all of the contents of your meal consumed. Comets, asteroids, and other space rocks are just like those bag fries. When the collection of gas and dust came together to form our sun, and when our sun ‘turned on’ and blasted lighter debris and gas into the deep solar-system, MOST of the matter came together as planets, but a there are a lot of bag fries flying around out there. Albeit not as fun to run into as real fries.

With the Russian meteorite, people are demanding to know why they weren’t warned about it. As is with any natural disaster, we want answers of who to blame.

First off – the facts as from what I’ve been able to read from the REAL nerds out there that know what’s going on: the object that exploded over Russia was about 50 feet across, and about 7,000 tons of material. The damage and injuries (sad part of this science lesson) were caused by an air-burst, not the direct impact. Basically the meteor contacts the upper atmosphere causing the streak across the sky, and once it hits the dense atmosphere, it’s like hitting a cement wall traveling at 33,000 miles per hour. The sudden explosion glows brighter than the sun, and causes a shock wave that shattered out windows and hurt a LOT of people. From there, yes, solid pieces can get all the way to the ground and cause more direct damage.

Rumors came in that the Russian military shot it out of the sky…no. That would be like hitting a bullet, being shot out of another bullet, being shot out of another bullet, with a bullet in a matter of seconds to aim. Just a tad too fast to stop it once it’s here, streaking across the sky.

It’s too hard to stop? Well someone should be trying to figure out how to stop it in case it ever happens again! I agree. Meanwhile, our government has cut the space program, has ended our only means to send Americans into space, and has not attempted the great feats our grandparents’ generations attempted in the name of cost-savings, when the space program was only one half of one percent of our budget. Somewhere there’s a guy my age whose Grandfather went to the moon in a device with less technology than what was in his first smart phone. Our government decided that we proved our point, and for 40 years has left new frontiers unexplored. Almost two generations can grow up being inspired more by what happens on fourth and long, rather than the words a human being would say if they were the first person to place a boot-print on a new world.

In Russia, that little rock that injured 1,000 people and damaged 4,000 buildings exploded with the force of over 20 Hiroshima bombs at an altitude of 20 kilometers. All from 50 feet of rock. It’s no joke people. That other…asteroid? The one that missed us this week?

That asteroid was about 150 feet long, about the size of a 15 story office building. Something that big moving that ridiculously fast (5 miles per second) would leave an impact crater the size of the island of Monaco according to my man @neiltyson, and an air-burst comparable to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Also – that asteroid crosses our orbit…meaning every time it goes around the sun once, it crosses our lane of traffic. Eventually…we will be at the same place, at the wrong time.

So, Russia – very sad. As for 2012da14? Dad and I hopped online and watched it zing by, broadcasted on a telescope in Australia. We both agreed, that we were witnessing the last thing the dinosaurs saw…a bright object moving across the sky. The only difference being, ours kept moving and theirs…got brighter.

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Just a small dot, scooting across the sky. The above screen shots came about 15 seconds apart. It made me think of how long that rock has been up there. Billions of years I imagine. How many times has it passed our planet, or other planets, or who knows who or what else. It made me think of the BIGGER objects that have come so close. In the book Guide to Prehistoric Astronomy in the Southwest by J. McKim Malville, ancient civilizations on this very continent hired some of their smartest people to (yes, get this) stare at the sun every day. The sky was their life. When to plant, harvest, travel, hunt, etc. The sky was their calendar, television, religion, compass, and home to God/gods/whoever else. Someone very smart needed to be in charge of noting where the sun and stars were in the sky, to help them decide what to do next.

Dad and I wondered what they would think if all of a sudden, a sky that they worship, plan by, live by, and know frontwards and back suddenly had a bright dot moving at a steady pace across it, narrowly missing them. What would they think if one turned into the fireball we saw this week, and a massive explosion that leveled miles of land. Certainly there would be confusion, panic, and fear. Not too different than today. The only difference being, we know what it is, and have the technology to stop it if we wanted to. We have our modern-day sun-watchers. We and our government just need to pay to have them.

So go outside sometime, take 50 paces, and look back where you started. That’s all 2012da14 was, and all it would take to give a large portion of this planet a really bad day. An object not much bigger in size than the very shuttle we grounded, an object incredibly difficult to detect, and incredibly challenging to stop, that would wipe out possibly entire cities. We are not the all-powerful people we think we are, and we are not on an invincible fortress. We are on a wobbly, blue bubble, and unless we prove that we are capable of embracing the value of science and exploring the unknown, there’s a rock out there with our name on it…and it’s headed this way.

Space exploration is not a group of guys living out their Star Trek fantasies. It is not who can plant a flag the furthest away from home (however yes it has been in the past). It’s a means to invent new things, create new technology, bring us together, and inspire us to give the future a chance. And maybe, when that time comes, it will be the way we save the world.

This past week, it’s as if our creator reached out and showed us what a clinched right fist looked like, and then flicked us on the ear with his left saying “Now aren’t you glad I didn’t use my fist?” There are lots of threats that face our species. Asteroids could be one we learn to avoid.

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