• The sky is falling
    February 27,2013
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    The meteor that came down over Russia recently, creating considerable damage and even more shock, is a reminder that there are more bits of matter floating in space than you can see, and itís logical that an object with the gravitational pull of the Earth can attract them intermittently.

    The problem for those on Earth is to figure out when such events are likely to happen, and what to do about it.

    A little over a century ago, a meteor even larger than the recent one landed in a remote spot in Siberia, flattening forests for hundreds of miles around.

    In the 1930s one that was probably about the size of the recent one came down in the Atlantic. Because there was no disruption on land it attracted only casual news comment. If the recent Russian one had come down between Chicago and Pittsburgh, you can guess what sort of damage and death would have ensued.

    The Earth has been punched by larger entities over the years. The age of the dinosaurs came to an end when a big object slammed into what is now the Caribbean, followed in a geologically short time by another that landed west of what is now India. It is quite likely that asteroid landings have brought about the ends of earlier geological periods as well.

    The asteroid that passed close to the Earth earlier this month was said to be the size of a football field. The big hole in the Arizona desert came from a meteor or asteroid that hit about 50,000 years ago. It is only a matter of time before another one will become caught in our gravitational field.

    Several years ago astronomers spotted an asteroid whose orbit they thought would lead it to hit the Earth in 2029. Further study refined that thinking into a belief that it will come close enough in that year to be seen in daylight by the naked eye. Computer analysis says that if it passes a specific point in the sky during that year, it will be on track to hit the Earth in 2035.

    Itís big enough to have a name as well as a number. The watchers called it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of destruction, because itís big enough to cause considerable destruction if it hits us. Itís too big to be broken up into pieces so small theyíll burn out before they hit the Earth. Apophis is about as long as East Mountain, if not quite as tall. Breaking it into eight or a dozen pieces would merely cause the damage to be more widespread.

    And when something that big slams into the Earth, the impact has an effect beyond the surface damage it causes.

    Something that big pushing into the Earthís molten core sets off intense volcanic activity elsewhere. You can remember the disruption to air travel caused by a single volcano in Iceland. Imagine if every volcano on the globe were to erupt at the same time.

    The atmosphere everywhere would be totally shrouded, bringing about untold changes in whatever life remained.

    So there are two decades in which human beings have a chance to figure out some way to nudge that asteroid into an orbit that will remove it from an Earth collision. Let us hope they not only do that, but set up a global watch for other chunks of matter that are on track to intercept the Earthís orbit.

    Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Rutland Herald.
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