By now you’re probably wondering what this is all about, whyFBI agents pulled you out of your barista job, threw you on a helicopter, and brought you to NASA headquarters. There’s no time, so I’ll shoot it to you straight. You’ve seen the news reports. What hit New York wasn’t some debris from an old satellite. There’s an asteroid the size of Montana heading toward Earth and if it hits us, the planet is over. But we’ve got one last-ditch plan. We need a team to land on the surface of the asteroid, drill a nuclear warhead one mile into its core, and get out before it explodes. And you’re just the liberal arts major we need to lead that team.
I. Am. Dying. You simply must read the rest.
What does an awesome slow-motion video of a ball falling into sand have to do with any of that? BOOM. That’s what.
Around 65 million years ago, an asteroid about six miles across struck the Earth, incinerating the local atmosphere and leading to mass extinction of the dinosaurs. New research from NASA geologists suggests that between 1.8 and 3.8 billion years ago, perhaps seventy such impacts occurred.
In the early solar system, the gas giant planets like Jupiter and Neptune hadn’t quite settled into their homes at the outer reaches of our planetary neighborhood. Their irregular orbits sent enormous hunks of debris hurtling toward young Earth (an era called the Late Heavy Bombardment). If you were an early single-celled organism on Earth, just chillin in your mineral pool, minding your own prokaryotic business, life would have been very eventful, and destructive.
By locating the debris patterns in deep rock that occur with impacts such as these, followed by plugging them into an advanced computer model, these researchers guess that “dino-killer” type asteroids may have been a regular event.
I wonder how they might have shaped early evolution? Thank goodness the solar system has settled down a bit since then.
Previously: For more awesome Late Heavy Bombardment boom-booms, check out this video reconstruction of the Moon’s evolution, and check out my answer about where our moon’s particular crater pattern came from.
In 2010, the ESA Rosetta satellite made a fly-by of the asteroid Lutetia. Lutetia is a remnant of the young solar system, ~100 km across, a chunk of debris cast off in a time of chaos and just-forming planets. Scientists think that it might have been a failed mini-planet, sentenced to wandering the solar system’s inner asteroid belt for the past 3.6 billion years.
Just released images have been compiled into a stunning fly-by video. Wow.
(via Rosetta Blog and Phil Plait)
Our planet’s proper-noun Moon, the one we call Luna, has been hanging out around Earth for about 4 billion years. A new simulation says that at any moment, Luna is not alone.
University of Helsinki researchers used a massive supercomputer to simulate 10 million tiny asteroids, just a few feet across, passing Earth. Between the gravitational pull of the Sun, Moon and Earth, tens of thousand were captured. As a result of these calculations, which would have taken your home computer six years, they estimate that at any moment Earth is joined by at least one “mini-moon”.
These tiny asteroids can orbit for years, undetected, before being pulled back into a path around the Sun. If we could capture one, imagine what we could discover about the early Solar System!
In 1967, an MIT professor gave his students an interesting homework assignment. Their job was to hijack the Apollo space program and use it to destroy an asteroid that was bound for Earth.
Professor Sandorff’s students proposed to hijack Project Apollo, delaying NASA’s first manned lunar landing by about three years. They would take over the first nine Saturn V rockets earmarked for the moon program, commence construction in April 1967 of a third Launch Complex 39 Saturn V launch pad (Pad C), and add a high bay to the VAB, bringing the total to four. NASA had planned to build Pad 39C, going so far as to build a road to the proposed pad site (image at top of post), but had abandoned Pad 39C to cut costs. Three Saturn V’s would be used for flight tests, and the remainder would each launch toward Icarus one heavily modified unmanned Apollo CSM bearing an enormous, 44,000-pound nuclear warhead with a destructive yield of 100 megatons.
A great read at Wired about the homework you wish you were doing, and the certifiable fascinating plan that the students came up with.
There’s over 1 million asteroids in the main belt of the solar system, and even more when you add in the rogue wanderers. If we have to debunk even one tenth of one percent of them, that’s still more than 1,000 apocalypse scenarios that we have to shake out of your head. Let’s stop shaking and start thinking.
First of all, it’s not going to hit us. Yes, it’s going to pass within 27,000 km. But that’s not going to hit Earth next February. NASA’s Near Earth Object Program scores the impact probability for all kinds of rogue celestial objects. It currently rates DA14 at a 1 in 4,550 chance. Or, looking at it another way, a 99.978% chance that it won’t hit us.
Since this asteroid is on an orbital path that will bring it by Earth again in the distant future, should we be on the alert for a decade or two down the road? Dunno. We can’t look that far ahead for an object of this size with any real certainty. Painting it or not is an irrelevant and unrealistic question.
Here’s one thing I do know: Between now and then human beings will provide each other with more opportunities to be destroyed than this little rock could ever imagine. So perhaps if we stop looking up for the time being we can avoid a collision with our fate down here.
(More at Bad Astronomy)
Q:So I bought Universe Sandbox and let me just say, it is fantastic. Definitely worth the money. Anyway, there's an Earth-Apophis simulation and I ran it...Apophis swung past Earth but continued to orbit in a kind of crazy fashion, never coming back and hitting it. Now I only ran the simulation twice. I wonder if I had ran it 100 times, would it have hit Earth? I don't know everything about it, but doesn't Apophis have to hit a specific keyhole in Earth's gravity to return 7 years later?
Glad to hear that Universe Sandbox is such a hit.
Apophis is a near-Earth asteroid about 300 meters in diameter that is going to make a close pass of Earth in 2029. So close, in fact, that it will be within some of our satellites. As it passes Earth, its path will be altered by our gravity, causing it to return in 2036. For this reason, it has become something of a doomsday scare target.
You are absolutely right that for Apophis to actually hit Earth when it returns in 2036, it has to pass through a “keyhole” in space only a half mile wide. The odds of this happening have been calculated, and they are very, very small.
So small, in fact, that you’d have to run your Universe Sandbox simulation an average of 250,000 times to see it happen once. In other words, there’s a 99.9996% chance it won’t happen.
A View of Asteroid 2005 YU55 Passing By Earth
As was widely covered yesterday, a 400 meter-wide asteroid made of coal-black rock passed between the Earth and the Moon yesterday. Most people on Earth probably didn’t notice. That’s because you needed a pretty significant telescope in order to see it.
The sequence above shows the asteroid traversing right to left by a group in New Mexico.
Is video more your thing? Check out this sequence made by Jason Ware of Plano, TX:
neutralnoodle asked you:
G’ day Joe. I’m in the Southern Hemisphere (S.A) and I ‘d like to know if I’ll be able to see the asteroid this evening? Have a nice day I have to run and write my exam now. Bye.
Unfortunately, you won’t see it unless you have a very high-powered telescope. YU55 is only 400 meters wide, and it’s going to pass pretty far away (only as close as 325,000 kilometers!). Not to mention that its surface has the reflectivity of charcoal. That means it’s so dark that it’s beyond human vision by about 100 times.
Here’s NASA’s animated trajectory prediction for the asteroid:
If you’re feeling energetic and have access to a telescope, here’s some tips from SkyandTelescope.com on trying to find the asteroid.
Good luck with your exam and all that!