In an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, former astronaut Russell Schweikart warns that it’s high time to get a system in place to deal with asteroids that might collide with Earth and cause a catastrophe of almost unfathomable proportions. Even if a relatively small asteroid smashed into our planet, he explains, it could destroy an entire city.
Statistically, he writes, such an event occurs every 200 to 300 years. The last instance, according to Schweikart, was the Tunguska event in 1908, when a mysterious object smashed into a forest in Siberia, flattening trees for 90 miles around and creating a glow that could be seen 3,000 miles away.
By the way, though Schweikart ascribes the Tunguska explosion to to an asteroid 120 feet across, we should point out that there’s been a considerable amount of debate over the years as to how big the object was—various estimates put it at 60 to 1,200 meters in diameter—as well as what it actually was. A study published by Cornell University scientists in 2009 contends that the Tunguska object actually was a comet rather than a meteor, and that it started to break up in the Earth’s thermosphere, a couple of hundred miles above the planet’s surface. That’s based upon observations in the day after the event of brilliant, night-visible clouds, or noctilucent clouds, that are made up of ice particles and only form at very high altitudes and in extremely cold temperatures.
But as usual, we digress. Schweikart warns that a truly big kahuna—one six or seven miles across—could trigger a wave of extinctions, like the collision 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and 75 percent of all species on the planet. Asteroids of that size are actually fairly common, though fortunately, they seldom strike Earth. But “seldom” wasn’t much comfort to Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Schweikart advocates pushing ahead aggressively with research to develop and deploy an asteroid deflection system. NASA’s Deep Impact probe, which successfully smashed into comet Tempei 1 in 2005, showed that we have the technology to stage such a preemptive strike and alter an object’s course just enough to cause it to miss Earth. He also suggests the development of a gravity tractor—that is, a spacecraft that would hover in front of an object and use its weak gravitational force to adjust its path. But he warns that “we don’t want to wait to test this scheme when potentially millions of lives are at stake.”
And you thought that you had enough to worry about, with zombies converging on the Lincoln Memorial.
But enough frightening stuff. Here are the science and technology stories of the day.
Ancient insects found in India. The bugs have been preserved in amber for thousands of years. Cool.
“Doomsday” memo warns Microsoft that it must figure out how to survive in post-PC world. Departing MS software guru Ray Ozzie tells colleagues that they have to adjust to a Brave New World in which mobile devices reliant upon the cloud will take over. Windows may be on the way out, too.
Trained bees solve a complex math problem. We predict that Russell Crowe and Ron Howard are going to make a sequel to their 2001 mathematician biopic, entitled “A Beautiful Hive Mind.”
Space tourism could have big, negative climate impact. A computer modeling study shows it would spew tons and tons of soot at high levels in the atmosphere, where it would disproportionately exacerbate the Greenhouse effect. “It’s not a pretty picture for the Arctic or Antarctic, “one of the authors warns.
Water could hold secret to tuning graphene nanoelectronics. We’re talking devices that would be an atom in thickness. And you thought your new iPod was teeny.