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Cosmic coincidence and why science matters

On February 15, 2013 two extraordinary cosmic events coincided. An asteroid made a fly-by while a meteor put on a show. Science says we don’t have to run and hide.

by Kelly Tyrrell

Photo by Nikita Plekhanov

Photo by Nikita Plekhanov

It was a day for a dose of cosmic reality.

On February 15, 2013, while it seemed most of the science world was busy worrying about altered climates and hurling broken tomatoes, news came in of a prehistoric rock that had come barreling out of the sky.

With the energy equivalent of 30 Hiroshima bombs, it exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, injuring at least 1,000 people.

Sixteen hours later an asteroid twice its size grazed Earth.

We’re basically “moving through a shooting gallery in the solar system,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told PBS NewsHour.

In this case, we knew the asteroid – named 2012 DA14 – would be darting past, skimming Earth’s surface with just over 17,000 miles to spare. NASA has been tracking it since last year.

The asteroid got a better view of us here than our satellites hanging out in geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles away. [Video here and here].


Photo courtesy of NASA JPL

But the Russian rock, somewhere near a billion years old and as large as a football field is wide, made a most unexpected and unwelcome visit.

Fortunately for us, Russian people love their dashboard cameras and we were treated to front row seats as the 10,000 ton intruder plummeted into our atmosphere at 40,000 miles an hour.

At that rate, it could have traveled between New York City and Moscow almost 10 times in an hour. Take that, high-speed rail.

The meteor’s display was a once-in-a-century event, said Paul Chodas, part of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.

Space rocks are thrown at the Earth about once a decade but most crash in remote places and go unnoticed, said deGrasse Tyson.

If a rock comes burning into the atmosphere and no one is there to see it, does it make an impact?

Some impacts are more noticeable than others/Photo from NASA

Some impacts are more noticeable than others/Photo from NASA

There was some confusion, naturally, over exactly what it was that hit the city of 1 million in southwestern Russia. We’d all heard an asteroid was on it’s way through, making the closest known pass yet for something its size through our orbit.

Some wondered, did the asteroid hit us?

Alas, it was but a cosmic coincidence.

The asteroid 2012 DA14 is a massive space rock that would take up half the length of a football field if laid out nicely. Chodas says there is a “very tiny possibility” it could make impact in the year 2080.

It, too, is orbiting the sun with a trajectory similar to ours. But Earth, ever the big bully, could run into it some day.

So what is the difference between an asteroid and a meteor, you ask? The short answer is that, out in space, asteroids are larger than meteroids.

When a meteoroid enters Earth’s atmosphere, it is called a meteor. Once it hits the ground, it’s a meteorite.

Asteroids, on the other hand, stay in space. Until they don’t. But when they come knocking, they aren’t called asteroids anymore.

Pieces of the meteorite found/Photo by Alexander Sapozhnikov

Pieces of the meteorite found/Photo by Alexander Sapozhnikov

If 2012 DA14 came for a visit, it would be dubbed a meteor and then a meteorite once it hit the ground.

In 1908, Siberia welcomed an asteroid-turned-meteor-and-meteorite slightly smaller than 2012 DA14. It carried the energy of 185 Hiroshimas and flattened nearly 1000 square miles of forest.

Fortunately, something like 2012 DA14 will hit our planet about only once every 1,200 years.

While tens of thousands of “dangerous” objects are hurtling past Earth each day as we navigate this shooting gallery, there are – luckily – people paying attention.

Scientists, engineers and people who like computers and algorithms are monitoring what they can and helping us all make sense of what happens.

“If you live in a world without scientists and engineers, the first thing you do is you say: ‘Let’s run and hide, or buy water or dig holes and live in them,’” deGrasse Tyson said of events like those on February 15.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do that.

Rather than attributing it to a fit of rage from the Gods or a rain of terror, we know exactly what it was that lit up the sky and exploded over Chelyabinsk in the course of 32.5 seconds. And we know that 2012 DA14 is still out there, sharing space with us and saying hello every now and then.

But some lingering questions remain. If something larger and scarier were to consider making an appearance, could we do anything to stop it?

Our favorite astrophysicist, deGrasse Tyson, says no, not really.

“Now we know when they’re coming, but we still have no means to do anything about it,” he said.

We don’t fund these sorts of things anymore.


About kelly tyrrell

runner. science writer. prairie lover. mountain dreamer.

One comment on “Cosmic coincidence and why science matters

  1. Pingback: Saving science: Hoping for a political miracle | Figure One

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This entry was posted on February 26, 2013 by in Policy, Research, space and tagged , , , , , , .
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