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Friday, February 15, 2013

We should prepare for future meteor strikes

by Jamie Lutton.

For those of you who don't read the paper or keep track of current events, there was a meteor strike last Friday over the skies of Russia.  A thousand people were hurt by the shattering glass, but no one was killed (at least, I had not heard of any deaths, at the time of writing this). .

Online, there are some fine videos of the meteor coming in, taken by dash cameras on Russian cars. It left a trail like a jet engine across the sky, and one witnesses reported they heard a sonic boom so loud that they nearly went off the road. This meteor broke windows over hundreds of miles.
I hate it when I am right. I had been predicting something like this for years. 
No, I am no astronomy expert, but I read a lot of science articles about space. The real experts have been quietly worried about something like this happening to Earth for years. This worry was accelerated by the impact on Jupiter of several large fragments of a comet, the Shoemaker-Levy comet, back in 1994. This strike was predicted by  astronomers a year earlier  Astronomers all over the world then had time to line up their telescopes and watch the comets hit Jupiter.

The hit was spectacular, Jupiter, a very large gas planet, was 'lit up' from the strike for months; a hole was opened in Jupiter's atmosphere the size of the Earth, and was visible for weeks afterwards.

The best book about this is Comets; Creators and Destroyers by David H. Levy.  In this book he describes how he spotted the comet, predicted it's trajectory, and observing the collision, as well as the differences between an asteroid and a comet.

This strike, which left large holes in Jupiter's atmosphere, one  the size of the Earth, fed the scientific community's interest, and anxiety about, in tracking objects in the sky.

We have known that meteors strike the Earth frequently.  Erosion and volcanic activity have erased most of the traces of their impact, but it is easy to go to Arizona and see one crater  that is a mile across, a collision that occurred only 50,000 years ago.

Also, oddly enough, just 105 years ago, in 1908, there was an 'air burst' meteor hit, very like this one over Russia, called the Tunguska EventThis meteor strike flattened 80 million trees over 830 square miles, fatality count unknown.

Russia, being the largest landmass, would naturally have the most meteor hits.  This event had puzzled scientists for years, until they figured out it was a meteor burst in the air.   The meteor, as it skimmed through the atmosphere, would probably have killed many thousands if it had hit a populated area of the Earth..
Perhaps we will choose to ignore this warning. After all, the strike happened in Russia, not here, and nobody died this time.

Americans tend to ignore foreign news unless it affects the price of oil.  There is a project on paper, Operation Safeguard, that is an attempt to tackle this problem, but it has not been funded by the present administration.

But I bet the Russians are not so sanguine. I would not be surprised if President Putin   makes  at least some effort to talk about preventing future meteor strikes like this one.  This strike was seen by hundreds of thousands of people over hundreds of miles, and injured over a thousand from flying glass.

It  was a terrifying event to live though.

We should be glad that this strike did not happen, say, in 1962, before technology was advanced enough to analyze the strike quickly, and when Russian-American relations were very tense, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. .

This strike could have set off World War III.

Present technology could not detect meteors as small as this before they hit.  But the technology could and will  be improved, if we fund the research into this problem. And present day astronomers can detect bigger meteors than this one, as long as the funding is in place to watch the skies.

As I said, I have been worrying about something like this happening since 1994. As the mathematician said in Jurassic Park, ' I hate it when I am right".

Lets hope world leaders learn from this that we must fund the astronomers who are watching the sky. I wish that President Obama would fund NASA more generously, as we need to be prepared for any eventuality. At least the Russians, with this shot across the bow, must be considering funding their astronomers, and their space program to be an imperative.

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