Armageddon: Why an Asteroid Might Kill Us All
A giant asteroid just barely missed the Earth, and we didn’t know about it until 3 days after it missed us. Are space agencies even trying to save us?!
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Armageddon: Why an Asteroid Might Kill Us All

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You may not have heard, but an asteroid was discovered in late July 2017, three days after almost hitting the Earth.

It was overshadowed by news about a nuclear bomb possibly hitting the Earth

The story goes that a large asteroid buzzed by Earth, closer than the distance between here and the moon. Luckily, it missed us, and scientists discovered it flying away three days later.

 

Which leaves me with one question:

 

Wait, what?

“In the news today, humanity was almost obliterated by a giant asteroid, but it missed. Over to Wendy for traffic.”

A giant asteroid just barely missed the Earth, and we didn’t know about it until after it missed us? How did we not know about this in advance? I assumed that there were thousands of people at space agencies with state-of-the-art space monitoring equipment, monitoring every inch of space for this exact sort of thing. What do they do at NASA, just look the other way while ignoring anything that could wipe us all out?

Because that’s what climate change deniers are for

What was it?

According to this NASA Ambassador, Asteroid 2017 001 is a large space rock named by someone without imagination. It’s hurtling through space around 37,303 km/h, is probably pretty dark in color, and is somewhere between 25 and 78 meters long. It’s all hard to say for sure, because we didn’t see it until it was already 3 days behind us. This is science trying to describe a motorist that nearly hit it with a car.

“It was either big or small. Not sure how fast. Maybe a dark color, I guess. I didn’t get a good look at it, I was pretty stunned.”

How close did it come?

About 123,031 km. Or, about 1/3 the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Or, holy crap. Basically, the Moon was safer than we were. Thanks for the heads up, Moon.

“Meh, they’ll be fine.”

What could’ve happened if it hit us?

Remember that meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013? The one that damaged 7 200 buildings and injured around 1 500 people (mostly from shattering glass)? This asteroid was about 3 times the size of that.

Meteor Hits Russia Feb 15, 2013 - Event Archive
Like this, times 3

If 2017 001 had hit an urban area, it likely would’ve levelled a city district at least. That NASA rep helpfully tells us that it wouldn’t be an “extinction level event” though. So no worries, I guess.

Who is supposed to be watching out for these?

Well, NASA has their Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) for “computing asteroid and comet orbits and their odds of Earth impact”. Basically, they’ve got a bunch of telescopes with charge-coupled devices that take sequential pictures of space, then compare them to see if something in the pictures has moved. Like a giant flip-book, if 99.999% of the pages were completely black.

Not all jobs at NASA are exciting

CNEOS’s goal is to spot 90% of near-earth objects over 140 m in diameter. I’m not sure why they don’t bother with the other 10%, then again I don’t know how they know what percentage of asteroids they don’t detect in the first place.

“We take the number we do find, and add 10%.”

What’s the plan if NASA finds an asteroid headed towards Earth?

In early July 2017, NASA announced the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). The plan is to launch a “fridge-sized” object at 9 times the speed of a bullet into an oncoming asteroid, knocking it off path. It’s not clear what the fridge-sized object is, although given the apparent state of affairs at NASA, we’re forced to assume it’s an actual old fridge.

Behold the unspeakable technology of NASA

Plan B is to send Bruce Willis and a team of oil riggers up in a rocket to blow the asteroid up. Seriously, the fridge slingshot is the whole plan. If a world-ending asteroid is careening towards Earth, our best bet is to fling a kitchen appliance-sized thing towards it and hope we don’t miss. Other than that, NASA can help governments “work out impact timing and locations”. In other words, brace for impact.

“There’s an apocalyptic asteroid coming and we missed it with the fridge. Now we must act quickly to…wait to die, I guess.”

Not only that, but the DART is only a test, and it’s scheduled for a harmless asteroid coming in October 2022. Although if they had been paying closer attention, they probably could’ve used the one that just passed. That means that testing happens in 5 years, so a reliable defense is probably decades away. Up until then, we’re pretty much defenseless.

The Americans are planning to build a wall in space to block asteroids. The asteroids will pay for it.

So what do we do if an asteroid is coming?

Well, if 2017 001 is any indication, we probably won’t know until it hits us. It doesn’t matter if we do see one, though, because we can’t do much anyways. As one NASA researcher puts it, if an asteroid is coming, “there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it at the moment.” Comforting.

NASA has a strict no-sugarcoating policy

Don’t worry though, space is a big place, and the odds of a big impact are low. No way an asteroid could ever blast our species to oblivion, right?

“That’s what we said.”

Maybe get working on that fridge slingshot, NASA.

Dan is working on a concrete umbrella to stop asteroids. Email him at blog [at] scienceeverywhere.ca to see a topic covered here.

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