There is a meteor sneak attack going on right now from outer space and almost no one knows anything about it, according to a study published by the B612 Foundation. Since 2000, more than 26 preliminary bombing attacks having already been carried out with weapons ranging from one to 600 kilotons. For comparison, “Little Boy,” the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, had an effective yield of 16 kilotons – 16,000 tons – of TNT.
The attacks are not being launched by one nuclear power against another. They are being launched against Earth by the rest of Earth’s solar system, and from beyond the confines of the solar system, but there are no aliens involved in these sneak attacks.
Since 2000, 26 meteors – for an average of one every six months – have blown up in the upper atmosphere with forces equivalent to a nuclear explosion. Meteor attacks are tabulated by the same systems that were developed to identify and locate nuclear explosions during the Cold War as part of the defense readiness system. After the Cold War ended, the same system was kept in place as part of the monitoring efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons and clamp down on weapons testing.
The B612 Foundation culled their data from the International Monitoring System of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty Organization, which can detect such powerful explosions anywhere in the world. Meteor impacts create a seismic compression signature similar to that created by a nuclear blast, enabling the monitoring system to pick up on them.
The most recent attack smacked the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains on February 15, 2013. More than 1,100 people were injured by a 500 kiloton air burst when a 55 foot diameter, 10,000 ton meteor traveling at 33,500 miles per hour exploded at an altitude of between 18,000 and 30,000 feet, according to the Russian Academy of Sciences. Pieces of the meteorite were spread out across a 100 mile radius from ground zero. No deaths were reported, but millions of dollars worth of property damage were reportedly caused by the shock wave from the explosion, and from fragments of the shattered meteor that reached the ground.
A rock in space is termed an asteroid and, as long as it minds its own business and stays in space, it remains an asteroid. When it enters the Earth’s atmosphere is becomes a meteor and, when fragments of the meteor reach the ground, they are called meteorites, but the terminology is secondary to the imminent threat posed by the barrage of space rocks to which the Earth is submitted every year. Estimates put the number of meteor strikes at between 18,000 and 80,000 per year, but the vast majority of these are 10 grams or less, and only 500 – 600 meteorites actually reach the ground each year.
Three days ago, on April 19, 2014 another meteor strike was reported over Murmansk, a city of 300,000 people in the far northwest corner of Russia on the northern shore of the Kola Peninsula, near Russia’s borders with Norway and Finland. No injuries were reported, however, and the blast seemed far smaller than the Chelyabinsk blast.
Five hundred kiloton meteor strikes are rare, with only four known strikes of that magnitude having been recorded over the past 100 years. The largest known strike in modern times was the 10-15 megaton 1908 Tunguska event near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in the Krasnoyarski Krai area of Russia, a blast 1,000 more powerful than the one that leveled Hiroshima in 1945.
The Tunguska Event may not have been an asteroid coming to Earth. There is some speculation that it might have been a comet, but this is unlikely because comets are usually quite visible from Earth long before they reach an impact point. Regardless of the exact nature of the projectile, the Tunguska Event demonstrates how serious a major meteor strike could be for planet Earth.
People are worried, in part due to films like 1998’s Deep Impact and Armageddon, in which intrepid heroes save the planet through the use of technologies that did not exist then, and do not exist today either. Serious scientists, however, are also worried about two possibilities.
One possibility is the prospect of the Earth being hit again by asteroids large enough to cause a life extinction event, such as the one blamed for the extinction of the dinosaurs, an eventuality no force on Earth could prevent. The other possibility is a scenario in which smaller, but still devastating meteor strikes causing catastrophic damage to the planet that might be prevented or mitigation if known about well in advance, the precise premise on which the 1998 films were based.
That is also the premise for the B612 Foundation established by a group of former astronauts led by Ed Lu and Rusty Schweickart. The B612 Foundation is in the process of raising funds for a space telescope called the “The Sentinel,” currently under development at Ball Aerospace. Once launched, the Sentinel will be able to identify and track up to 90 percent of the asteroids in orbits that may intersect with the Earth’s own orbit. Originally expected to launch in 2016, the privately funded $450 million project is now not scheduled to lift off before 2018 for an anticipated five-year mission. There are as yet no specific plans for what to do about it if the Sentinel identifies a killer asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
The project has been stymied by the lack of public funding, something about which the normally reticent astronauts are clearly displeased about. Dr Lu said, in effect, that the policy of the world’s governments toward potential asteroid impacts is “blind luck.”
With private contributions of $3040 million per year coming in, it is not likely that the mission will launch before 2020 at the earliest. The fact that the project is being privately funded raises questions about whether the world’s governments, and the United Nations, are able or willing to launch a mission to deflect an asteroid if one were identified.
One of the reasons that the people of Earth are not more fired up about doing something to prevent space rocks from killing the planet is that most of the meteors in question have fallen upon remote areas, and very often in to the Earth’s oceans. The Chelyabinsk Event was a real wake-up call, a significant milestone because it was one of the few occasion when a city-killer meteor actually fell within range of a major city.
Like an individual who worries about cancer symptoms, but never goes to the doctor, it may well be that the governments of the world do not want to know if there is a planet-killing asteroid on a collision course with the Earth…and do not want anyone else to know either. In the event that the Sentinel finds one, hope that Bruce Willis, 59, the star of 1998’s Armageddon, is still willing to lead the mission, because neither Robert Duvall, 83, the hero from Deep Impact, or Sean Connery, also 83, the star of the 1979 epic, Meteor, are available.
Dr. Lu believes that it would be possible to send up small, drone rockets that could gently nudge any impending meteor far enough off-course to turn an impact into a near miss…but that would only be possible if Earth’s space-faring nations got together to deliver a knock-out punch to the asteroid before it became a planet devastating meteor by striking Earth with a civilization killing blow.
By Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner