The idea of an asteroid hitting the Earth and annihilating the human race may sound like a cliche science-fiction plot, but it’s almost certain to happen eventually. Unless of course, we do something to prevent it. As reported by Times Record News, this is a scenario NASA’s been thinking about for some time, and the agency has a few ideas about what to do when the apocalypse is coming our way.
Just How Bad Could It Be?
Wish you had a dinosaur? We all do. But the reason we don’t, and can’t, is because they died off when a six mile wide asteroid smashed into our planet and literally created hell on Earth and a global winter. The massive explosion that resulted from this impact changed our planet completely.
Vast quantities of dust and smoke were thrown up into the atmosphere, sending the planet into a deep freeze that most living things didn’t survive. Even if they didn’t freeze, they starved as all the plant life died. Exit dinosaurs – enter fur-covered mammals.
You might say, “But that was then and this is now.” Yes – except there are still massive asteroids and comets floating around our solar system, some of which are even larger than the one that killed the dinosaurs.
In fact, an asteroid a fraction of the size of the one the dinosaurs saw hurtling down at them 65 million years ago could still kill off the human race. And even very small asteroids – in a cosmic sense – could cause enormous damage, possibly destroying entire cities.
Detecting an Asteroid
NASA currently is attempting to map as many potentially threatening asteroids and comets as possible. The creation of this map is an ongoing process that can probably never be said to be finalized.
In the event that any new object that might be a threat – known as a near Earth object or NEO – is detected, the Minor Planet Center would notify a handful of people at NASA to let them know of the danger. In the resulting alert, NASA will focus all of its resources on the incoming object to determine if it really is going to hit the Earth or not.
If NASA and the Minor Planet Center agree that a strike is imminent, they’ll contact the White House to give them the dire news so they can hopefully trot out President Morgan Freeman for an inspiring speech. In lieu of that, we’ll probably have to settle for alarming press releases.
Window of Opportunity
As suggested by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with an asteroid hitting Earth, timing is everything. If we only find out a couple of hours before it happens, the most we can do is send some people to bomb shelters and tell everyone else to duck and cover. That’s why NASA has a program in place for – hopefully – detecting NEOs in advance of them actually posing a threat.
Of course, this doesn’t always work. In 2013, a fairly small asteroid struck in Russia and could have caused massive devastation and loss of life if it’d hit a major city. Fortunately, it hit in the middle of nowhere. And this Chelyabinsk meteor – they’re called meteors once they enter the atmosphere – was only about 65 feet across.
If NASA has more than a few days of warning – months or years for instance – there are potentially some things the agency could do to prevent an asteroid strike on the Earth. But even then, the United States would have had to have made preparations well ahead of time.
As pointed out by New York Times, preventing an asteroid from striking the Earth becomes exponentially more difficult the closer it gets to our planet. Diverting it from its course when it’s hundreds of millions of miles away might take only a gentle nudge by a tiny robotic spacecraft, something NASA is considering.
Doing the same thing when it’s only a few hundred thousand miles away would probably be impossible even with nuclear weapons. As an aside, it should be noted that simply blowing up an asteroid with an atomic bomb as they did in Armageddon might make things worse, with fairly large chunks striking across the planet instead of one spot.
While we have small meteors strike our planet virtually every day, the threat posed by an asteroid hitting the Earth increases as the size of said asteroid increases. While it might seem like a safe bet that we won’t have a planet killer asteroid striking us anytime soon, it might be more comforting to know there is something we could actually do about it – assuming we bothered to spend the time and money.
[Featured Image by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]