Friday, February 15, 2013
Day of the Asteroids
Anyone paying any attention at all to the news this week has been anticipating the flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14. While scientists predicted that the asteroid would give us a close shave, passing within the orbit of Earth's geosynchronous satellites, they assured us that there was no danger the hurtling rock would slam into Earth.
So it came as quite a surprise when reports and dramatic videos from Russia depicted a light brighter than the sun streaking across the Ural sky, followed by a shockwave that shattered countless windows and injured, at last count, over 1,100 people. We still don't know the full story, but so far it looks like the ten-ton asteroid slammed into the atmosphere at over 30,000 mph and exploded into fragments with the force of a small atom bomb.
And yet it could have been so much worse. We're lucky DA14 didn't hit Earth, because it's many, many times larger than the meteor that streaked over Russia today; the damage would have been tremendous, though not bad enough to threaten the species. Still, there are rocks flying around in our solar system more than capable of wiping out life on Earth, which is why so many scientists have been pushing governments to step up their efforts to track asteroids and other celestial bodies. With enough warning, it's possible that we might be able to deflect a species-killing asteroid before it hits us.
Such a threat, of course, might not happen for hundreds or thousands of years. Or it could happen tomorrow. But when the stakes are this high, I'd certainly rather be safe than sorry. Protecting Earth from asteroid strikes is only one reason I support space exploration, but it's one of the big ones.
Hopefully the hundreds of Russians injured today will make full recoveries. And perhaps more people will start looking to the skies in the wake of today's twin near-misses.