What an asteroid flyby might look like if you were closer to the asteroid than the Earth. via
For astronomers, February 15 was a rather exciting day: We were buzzed by asteroid DA14 and had an unexpected visit from a meteorite over Russia. The Internet, broadly speaking, took a more apocalyptic view of the day's events: one rock from space came smashing into the planet and we narrowly missed colliding with another. There’s something about asteroids and meteorites that really brings out the conspiracy theorists and sensationalist news reports. And some floating around the web last week were pretty brilliant.
Here’s what actually happened: In 2012, astronomers found an asteroid (DA14), started tracking its orbit, and predicted it was going to pass about 17,000 miles above the Earth on Friday, February 15, 2013. Lo and behold, physics works, astronomers were right, and we got exactly the close pass we expected when we expected it.
The Russian meteor, on the other hand, came as a surprise. It was roughly the size of an average house and came in fast, many times faster than a bullet shot from a rifle. A hole about 30 feet across was found in the surface of a frozen lake west of Chelyabinsk, the expected impact site of at least the main fragment of the meteoroid.
Now, the fact that a house-sized meteorite struck unannounced is at least cause for a reappraisal of our meteor-monitoring tech. At the same time, a meteor colliding with Earth is a random occurrence; it's not a sign that aliens or supernatural beings are planning on destroying the Earth. But that didn't stop people from proclaiming doomsday was at hand.
The Russian meteorite. via
A week before DA14 passed by, The Voice of Russia published a fear-mongering piece claiming the Earth had just 93 years left before another asteroid would come along to finish us off. Really. The article is actually titled “We have 93 years left till the next End of the World: killer asteroid to hit Earth in 2106.”
The story is about asteroid 2012 YQ1, which we already know a few things about. It was discovered last year, is currently thought to be larger than a standard football field, and is known to travel in a highly elliptical orbit around the Sun. The geometry of its orbit and ours mean our paths cross regularly; most recently it passed a safe 9 million miles away this January. But it’s not coming back with a vengeance. Astronomers haven’t been tracking it long enough to know with any certainty where that rock will be in nearly a century. Odds are, your grandchildren aren’t doomed.
But the hysteria over the asteroid we knew wasn’t going to hit the Earth can’t hold a candle to the theories that surfaced about the Russian meteorite. One Russian newspaper said that the meteorite was intercepted Hollywood-style by an air defense unit at the Urzhumka settlement near Chelyabinsk. It was reportedly blown into pieces just 12 miles in the air. By mid-day, the Russian military had set the record straight, confirming that it hadn’t shot the meteorite.
Shooting a meteorite is generally a bad idea anyway. You’ve got one massive rock screaming towards the planet. Shooting it might make it break up, in which case you’d have many rocks screaming towards the planet. And imagine the effects of an explosion powerful enough to break up a meteorite happening just 12 miles above the ground.
There were also suggestions that the meteorite was related to asteroid DA14, that it was part of its surrounding debris field, perhaps in a bid to make DA14's pass seem closer than it was. But no astronomers could conclusively say this was the case.
The hole left by the Russian Meteorite. via
Then there were the theories that the meteorite wasn’t a meteorite at all but a satellite that had been shot down by American forces. As the story goes, the burning streak captured in videos and published online was the satellite burning up as it reentered the atmosphere.
Or if it wasn’t a satellite, some suggested, it was an American weapon launched at Russia that had passed through space on its way to its target. This latter theory is oddly reminiscent of the time Roscosmos suggested the United States had somehow sabotaged Phobos-Grunt mission last year.
At the time, Roscosmos director Vladimir Popovkin said, "We don't want to accuse anybody, but there are very powerful devices that can influence spacecraft now… The possibility they were used cannot be ruled out." Popovkin later admitted America had nothing to do with Phobos-Grunt. It’s more likely the spacecraft was thwarted by the ever present galactic ghoul.
Of course, there were no shortage of reports and mumblings online that God sent the meteor. In addition to frantic tweets, RIA Novosti published the opinions of a clergyman from the Chelyabinsk region that the meteorite was the Lord’s message to humanity. "From the Scriptures, we know that the Lord often sends people signs and warnings via natural forces… I think that not only for the Ural [regions] residents, but for the whole of humanity, the meteorite is a reminder that we live in fragile and unpredictable world."
The kicker is the number of online voices that are appalled that we were caught off guard by the Russian meteorite, suddenly crying out for protection against threats from space. We can sometimes find, track, and predict these close calls and non-world-ending hits, and sometimes we can’t.
There are organizations like the B612 Foundation dedicated to tracking and, if possible, altering the paths of potentially destructive rocks in space. NASA recently pledged $5 million in funding for an asteroid-tracking program at the University of Hawaii called ATLAS, which is a big outlay for an agency whose budget is continually under threat.
All the wild conspiracy theories and fear mongering aside, the chance of an asteroid or large meteorite hitting the Earth is very small. Still, the threat of an impact is very real, and it’s something we should start taking more seriously. Maybe when all the crazy dust settles, last Friday’s events will serve as a wakeup call.