Early Friday, Earth took the celestial equivalent of a warning shot across the bow.
Amid the trials and tribulations of a group of cruise ship passengers enduring a sewage-soaked tour of the Caribbean, while Europe fretted over a growing scandal involving horse meat in its food supply, while the world was occupied by hundreds of concerns large and small, at least a little global attention was focused on the extraordinarily close passage of an asteroid predicted for later that day.
And that was the moment, entirely by coincidence, that a meteor entered the atmosphere and exploded several miles above the central Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The streaking meteor, its explosion and the subsequent shock wave were captured on video by dozens, if not hundreds, of Russians, who seem as enthusiastic about recording the mundane events of their lives as Americans.
The videos quickly made their way around the planet via television and the Internet. By Friday morning, most people had seen them, said something along the lines of “holy cow,” and then turned their thoughts skyward to the passage of a much larger rock called 2012 DA14, slated to pass just 17,000 miles above Earth at 2:20 p.m. that afternoon. “What if ...”
What if, indeed.
There is a great number of these rocks, large and small, in space moving in near-Earth orbits, meaning their paths and ours cross from time to time. We hear about them occasionally on the news, as scientists tell us that one will pass fairly close — usually well beyond the orbit of the Moon — and that there is little cause for alarm.
Well, what of the day when there is cause for alarm? We, meaning humanity as a whole, not just Americans, are only just now beginning to locate and track these near-Earth objects, as they are known. Right now, there is little we could do to stop one on a collision course with Earth.
It is fortunate that the chances of a large space object hitting Earth are small. Unfortunately, the consequences of such a strike may be very great indeed.
The Russian meteor was relatively small, estimated at 50 feet in diameter. Its explosion over Chelyabinsk Friday blew out windows, collapsed a factory roof and injured more than 1,000 people.
Another strike in Russia, the 1908 Tunguska Event, leveled thousands of square miles of forest in Siberia.
A hit by something the size of 2012 DA14 — 150 feet in diameter — would level a city, scientists say. And they tell us that a very large strike some 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs.
In short, we are shooting dice with the universe. Sooner or later, we’ll come up snake-eyes.
We could protect ourselves from a life-ending blow using current technology — if governments were willing to make the commitment to prepare. Hollywood solutions such as blowing up an asteroid with nuclear weapons are unlikely to work. The fragments would continue in the same orbit and deliver an equally devastating hit on Earth.
What will work is to reach the asteroid while it is still far away and nudge it just a fraction of a degree. Time and distance should amplify that minor course alteration enough to cause the object to miss Earth.
The key is to have this technology ready to use. If we wait until we spot an Earth-threatening asteroid to design and assemble the equipment, it may be too late.
Surely, there will be a cost to make these preparations. But, with international cooperation, it could be manageable. It is at least worth beginning some talks and exploring options.
Leaving human survival to the whims of a random universe makes little sense.