The Near Miss Meteor
I have had several people ask questions about this, so I figured it was time to blog it. On Monday, a meteor about 100 feet wide passed pretty close to Earth. Pretty close in this case is 40,000 miles (about twice as far away as geosynchronous telecommunication satellites). It was discovered merely two days before closest approach by Rob McNaught in Australia.
What would this type of object do if it were to hit Earth? Well, we have a pretty good idea since it is roughly the same size as what hit over Tunguska in 1908. Fortunately Tunguska is not very populated as the energy output is easily into the many megaton range (~10 megatons is a commonly cited figure). Not enough to wipe out life on Earth, but you sure don’t want it to hit near a major city. It could easily kill a few million people if it were to hit a major metropolitan area.
These asteroids are small and dim. They are difficult to find as we don’t have the telescopes to search the whole sky on a regular basis for the. That is changing. Pan Starrs, a series of four 1.8 meter telescopes in Hawaii, each with a 1.4 gigapixel camera, will be able to scan the entire sky about every four nights. Around 2014 or so, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, an 8.4 meter telescope to be build in Chile, will be able to image even fainter asteroids and scan the sky ever three nights.
Fortunately, we are looking for them and getting a lot better at finding them. I expect news of these near misses to become increasingly common (because we find more, not because they hapen more frequently!)
There is a group called the B612 Foundation working on the problem. Their ambitious goal is to alter the orbit of an asteroid by 2015. Contrary to the movies, blowing up a nuclear bomb isn’t a good option. We want to be able to make sure the asteroid misses Earth and that it will continue to miss Earth in the future!
We are smart enough to find the rock with our name on it…and just about smart enough to do something about it when we find it.
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