My Obsession With NEO

One of my fondest memories of my childhood is watching “B
movies” on Saturday afternoons with my mom while my dad was still at work.  There were the classic vampire, werewolf and
ghost stories, but one of my favorites was the 1951 science fiction classic “When
Worlds Collide” about (as the title suggests) a collision between the Earth and
another planetary body that will destroy both.  Unlike the modern incarnations of “Armageddon”
and “Deep Impact”, there is no rush to destroy/deflect the incoming body, but
there is a last ditch attempt to build an “ark” and evacuate a few and re-start
civilization on a (conveniently) trailing (conveniently) Earthlike planet.  For the 50s, it was way ahead of its time.

Fast forward to the early 1990s and like a good, young
scientist I’m catching up on the literature and while I’m reading Nature one day, I noticed an article entitled “Impacts on the Earth by asteroids and comets:
assessing the hazard
” – it started off with the cheerful sentence:

There is a 1-in-10,000 chance that a large (2-km diameter)
asteroid or comet will collide with the Earth during the next century,
disrupting the ecosphere and killing a large fraction of the world's
population.

Now I knew that an asteroid impact was the big theory (really
only a few years old at the time
) that had wiped out dinosaurs 65 million years
ago.  But the paper went on to explain
that things hit the Earth all the time and that – as you might imagine – the
frequency of the event and size of the object are inversely proportional – little things hit all the time
(and burn up in the atmosphere) – while the impacts of larger objects are
exceedingly rare – but not as rare as I thought!

I started digging through the literature and find out that comets and pretty
large asteroids– termed Near Earth Objects, or NEOs, capable of
producing H-bomb like explosions “get close” fairly often and that we usually
don’t notice them until they’re right on top of us.

So, it was with that weird combination of fascination and
paranoia that I saw a report the other day that on Monday asteroid 2009DD45 passed
within 45,000 miles of the Earth.  2009DD45
was about 100m in diameter and was capable of producing a “nuclear bomb” level
explosion similar to that of the famous Tunguska event that flattened a big
chunk of Siberia in 1908.  For those keeping score, 45,000 miles puts you
outside of satellites’ but well inside the Moon’s orbit.  The best part – it was first observed only two days
before.

Not much time to build an ark.  Happy Friday!

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33 thoughts on “My Obsession With NEO

  1. That is pretty crazy.. I was kind of surprised it didn't get more press attention. The worst would be to find out about it a few months ahead of time – not enough time to build an ark but too much time to worry.

  2. I was a bit surprised that something that large got that close before it was seen. Of course, it's entirely possible that objects that size get close to us all the time without being seen at all. I'd go searching for some information on that possibility, but I'm supposed to be doing our taxes right now (they should have been done ages ago!).

  3. And think of this….the thing that flattened the Siberian forests exploded before it even hit the ground. And look what it did. They estimate that something like that over a large metropolitan area and not Russian tundra would kill thousands. And there's plenty more out there.Biggest problem is what to do about it. Most of the time you can't even see them, they're too small, too fast, too dark to spot soon enough. And even if you did, what's the plan? Blowing it up, if you could, isn't a good idea (like in the movies)…the bits would all just rain down and cause their own damage, like widespread fires, and we don't have the technology yet to do a planned trajectory assist, like attaching rockets to it to shift its course. Why? Well, no one's committed to the cause and expenditure yet. Bail out the suits at GM but leave us open to global destruction. Good idea.And you never know when something will drop in. Look at the meteor caught on video last month in Austin….could have just as easily been something much larger.Have a good weekend!Have a good weekend!

  4. Haaa! That's all, folks! Just motivates me to live my life while I can!
    My mom and sister also loved watching ghost / sci fi movies together. It seems like these days the sci fi movies are really military-themed rather than focusing on the neat monsters and such. I liked scary aliens better.

  5. Except for "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Or "Doctor Blood's Coffin." Whuf.
    Regarding the NEO threat, I thought you scientists would have discussed this during one of your meetings at your secret headquarters. Or am I thinking of super-villains?

  6. Darn it, here I thought you were going to go all Matrix on us. That said, I am fascinated by how close this NEO got.Somewhat coincidentally, the movie on my flight today was "The Day the Earth Stood Still" with Keanu Reeves playing Klaatu. Don't watch it

  7. I guess I wasn't too surprised at the lack of coverage — it occurred over a weekend and there were more important things to think about, like Alex Rodriquez' hip surgery.

  8. QoFB — you could always bet against the odds and NOT pay your taxes because there might be a major impact before April 15th. I'm not sure that's sound financial advice, but i am a huge procrastinator. :)

  9. Thanks Jay — I think this is something that so few people think about seriously that it never enters into any kind of debate. We were talking at dinner the other night about this and were trying to figure out the likelihood that the next "unplanned" nuclear-type detonation would be an asteroid strike or terrorist attack? Good times.

  10. I really wanted The Day the Earth Stood Still to be good — or at least decent. Everything I've heard though that this isn't even worth burying in the Netflix queue.

  11. you could always bet against the odds and NOT pay your taxes because there might be a major impact before April 15th. LOL! I think the odds of Uncle Sam catching up with me are nearly infinitely higher than the odds of a major impact within the next month. I've had enough fun with Sam over the last couple of years. I'm almost done crunching the numbers and the damage is much lighter than I'd feared. I think I'll pay the taxes. 8:-)

  12. Steve,Are you familiar with the Torino Scale? This one was pretty low on the scale, so it didn't make the news. (Though the first one to rank on the scale did and it wasn't much higher.) An object gets higher on the scale for being bigger (because it has more energy on impact and so is more dangerous) and for being more likely to hit. Things like the Lyrids get a zero because there is essentially no chance that they can cause wide-spread damage on the ground (Wells notwithstanding). And things like the Great Daylight 1972 Fireball get a 7-9 because they can do one heck of a lot of damage and are fairly likely to hit.All told, there are probably fewer than 10,000 NEOs out there, of which only about 1200 are dangerous (i.e., big and likely to hit); the same math that allows us to determine how many earthquakes happen in a year or how many animals live in an area works here.And NEOs are a promise as well as a threat. Because they are so close to us, they are easily accessible and may provide raw materials more easily and less expensively than we could get them by mining them on Earth. NASA reports that the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter hold the equivalent of $100 billion worth of resources for every man, woman, and child on Earth (how does it feel to be a billionaire?).John

  13. John — I actually hadn't heard of the Torino scale until I was poking around after hearing about this recent incident. I read one report that the rating for one big rock in 2028 got moved to 4 — which I gather is fairly high for something that long away. I'm going to make sure to have spent all my 401(k) money by then — that is, if there's any left!

  14. Red Pen mentioned Death by Black Hole. If it’s a book – I haven’t read it, but I have had panic attacks while watching shows about black holes and the fact that the universe will one day be sucked into one. Lovely thought. I suppose an asteroid will take us out before that happens, or we’ll be engulfed by the ever-growing sun as it burns itself out.
    Woo hoo! Nothing like a little good news to lift one’s spirits. Cheers! :)

    • The thing about NEOs is that it will happen again. It’s not really a matter of “if” but “when”. The geological record suggests that they occur on average every 60-80 million years. Last one? 65 million years ago.

      • One reason I was on the fence as to whether or not to try and have kids is because I didn’t want my kids to experience this kind of thing – or their kids – or their kids’ kids.
        I’m not big into conspiracy theories, gov’t programing, etc. But I get freaked out often at the thought of asteroids and black holes. I mean, who has time for a conspiracy theory when an asteroid is heading straight for us. Aaaaaaaa!!!

  15. Pingback: Making An Impact | Stevil

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