Asteroid Strikes Russia: So What Gives?

Asteroid File Photo from NASA
Asteroid File Photo from NASA

The city of Chelyabinsk is in shock as thousands of windows blew out and structures were heavily damaged.

The Russian asteroid was a big deal — 50 feet across — not because it was a huge catastrophe but because of what it may portend for the future.

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I had the opportunity to do extensive research for a video news report on asteroid dangers back in 2004 for CBN News.

Here’s a still relevant excerpt from that story — offered in lieu of CBN understandably no longer carrying the video or a transcript online:

Now is the time for a new age of exploration and discovery, to go seek out the universe — but maybe it’s the reverse — the universe may be coming after us in the form of comets or asteroids.

Physics and astronomy professors like Gary Copeland at Old Dominion University are predicting ‘an event’ could be right around the corner. “We’ll get one to two events per century that will be equal to all the destructive power of all the weapons in World War II.”

That would mean that the event would be equivalent to the total destructive power of every bullet, every shell, every mortar, every bomb of WW II hitting at once — including the atomic ones.

The last space projectile of this magnitude was a mere 200 feet across. The asteroid struck central Russia in 1908, and the resulting fireball torched miles and miles of forest. But fortunately, the area was nearly uninhabited.

That rock took up about three-quarters of the length of a football field and about four times the one that shook Chelyabinsk.

Other tidbits from that old story you may find interesting:

-Consider a large asteroid hitting a major metro area like New York City. Millions would die.

-“Not so long ago, science assumed the risk was even smaller for these extremely rare events. But better technology means we’re discovering more [asteroids], and finding a higher risk than was first believed.”

-With the earth’s surface two-thirds water, a big asteroid in the ocean means a big tsunami — potentially a 900-foot wave, no kidding. A splashdown striking near Florida, being primarily lowland, could cause the state to temporarily disappear under sea water. Few would survive.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has focused on taking such possible catastrophes seriously. He currently serves in the House as Vice Chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Yesterday Congressman Rohrabacher said that we aren’t even looking for asteroids of the size that struck Russia. He added:

What concerns me even more, however, is the fact that we have no plan that can protect the Earth from any comet or asteroid. So, even if we find one that will hit us, we might not be able to deflect it.

What’s this “might not be able to deflect it”? Unless, of course, we roll out a slew old German 88 mm cannons and stop a big one? Sit around and wish bad karma on the approaching missile?

In fairness to Rep. Rohrabacher, he’s been about the only one to suggest the enhancement of asteroid search efforts and emergency plans. In fact, he proposed a bill back in 2003 to reward amateur astronomers for their valuable efforts to spot sky rocks:

Directs the [NASA] Administrator to make one annual award, unless there are no eligible discoveries or contributions, for each of the following categories: (1) the amateur astronomer or group of amateur astronomers who discovered the intrinsically brightest near-Earth asteroid among the near-Earth asteroids that were discovered by such astronomers or groups; and (2) the amateur astronomer or group of amateur astronomers who made the greatest contribution to the mission of the Minor Planet Center [at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory] to catalogue near-Earth asteroids.

The House bill passed in March of 2004 and limited the two $3,000 awards to citizens or permanent residents. In the Senate, the bill died despite being one of the lowest cost pieces of protective legislation in recent memory (at least mine).

As to the Russian view of protection against incoming space objects, they still seem to buy into the old Soviet propaganda machine’s insistence that Americans hated their guts. The Los Angeles Times reports:

“Americans can, for example, detect a dangerous object and calculate that it can fall somewhere in the Urals, but that doesn’t concern them,” Alexander Bagrov, a senior researcher with the Astronomy Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences told Russia-24, a federal news television network. “They can pass it over in silence.”

What about U.S. policy concerns? NASA is the agency responsible for tracking identified flying objects. I’m sure they’d like more for their budget to do just that — but between President Obama’s NASA cuts and the agency’s expenditures looking for water on Mars — that’s not going to happen.

How do we weigh the value of efforts to stop such unlikely catastrophes? Despite Hollywood hoopla (“Armageddon,” “Deep Impact”) that anti-space object defenses are possible, such ideas as huge lasers are still the stuff of science fiction.

We are in God’s hands.

Main Page Image Credit: NASA/JPL; Body Page Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt


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