Turns out Chicken Little was right. He didn't know it but the sky, or at least objects from the sky, are falling to Earth. And there are at least a million more where the last one came from.
Many people in the Russian Federation were already aware an asteroid was on the way. NASA had released a statement about an asteroid, labelled 2012 DA14, that would come rather close to the Earth's surface on Feb. 15, 2013.
2012 DA14 was projected to pass over Indonesia — close, in this case, meaning approximately 17,200 miles above the surface. NASA assured the public that no one was in danger from this technically near miss. The surprise of the day was a totally unexpected but quickly detected asteroid that hit the atmosphere and, thirty seconds later, exploded into fragments over the Ural region of Russia.
The unnamed, bus-sized asteroid, weighing about 7,000 tonnes, exploded with a force equivalent to 470 kilotons of TNT. To put things in perspective, the first nuclear weapon detonated in 1945 had a yield of a mere 20 kilotons. Of course, that's still a far cry from the largest nuclear weapon tested in 1961, which yielded a nearly a 50 megaton blast.
It’s awkward calling it "the asteroid." Let’s nickname it after the town most affected, Chelyabinsk. City officials report the damage of 3,000 buildings in Chelyabinsk, including the partial collapse of the roof of a zinc factory. An estimated 100,000 square metres of glass was destroyed, much of it imploding into the buildings.
The flying glass appears to be the cause of the majority of the human injuries. The Interior Ministry said between 900 and 1,100 people sought medical care after the shock wave and 48 were hospitalized.
To make matters a bit more intense, Earth had another unexpected near miss on Saturday, March 9. Asteroid 2013 ET, discovered five days before it passed by Earth, is estimated to be eight times larger than the one that struck Feb. 15. It had the capability to destroy a large city like Toronto or Moscow.
Space.com maintains that these type of small surprise asteroids are something we have to live with for the moment. The technology to deal with them simply doesn’t exist. The Russian Federation has called out the U.S. publicly, stressing the obvious need for an updated early detection system.
NASA has two congressional mandates ongoing concerning Near Earth Objects (NEO). The first, Spaceguard Survey, was issued in 1998 and called for the agency to discover 90 per cent of NEOs, with a diameter of one kilometer or greater, within 10 years. They estimate that 93 per cent of such objects have been catalogued, leaving only 70 left to be discovered.
It sounds great that someone is taking an active role in watching for potential asteroid disasters, but the recent surprise near misses and the direct hit in Chelyabinsk clearly demonstrate the issues with the implementation. One major issue being that the Chelyabinsk meteor wasn’t big enough to even qualify to be catalogued. The related issue being that there are an estimated one million more asteroids like it, peacefully orbiting for the moment.
The technology involved in discovering and tracking all of these heavenly bodies is amazing. And let’s not forget the upcoming Hubble telescope replacement that will give us a window into deep space like nothing ever built.
The technology that stood out the most in this incident has to be dashboard cameras. Do a quick web search for "Chelyabinsk meteor" and you’ll find a surprising number of videos at different angles from across the region. Some are surveillance videos, but a majority seem to have been submitted from people driving vehicles equipped with embedded dash cams. Apparently dashboard camera usage is on the rise in Europe, the Russian Federation and, to a lesser extent, here in North America. Driving across the pond is a bit different from what most of us are accustomed to and having some video evidence after an accident seems to be worth more than the installation cost.
The thing about the near misses is that most of them will be back. Maybe a little closer, maybe not.
Either way, stargazing has an added level of interest now. Every streak across the sky I see reminds me, there’s a million more where that came from.