“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
by Jamie Lutton
- For The Capitol Hill Times -
For those of you who don’t read the paper or keep track of current events, there was a meteor strike last Friday over the skies of Russia. A thousand people were hurt by the shattering glass, but, according to news at the time of me writing this, no one was killed.
Online, there are some fine videos of the meteor coming in, taken by dash cams atop Russian cars. The meteor left a trail like a jet engine across the sky, and one witness reported that they heard a sonic boom so loud that they nearly drove off the road. The meteor broke windows that spanned over hundreds of miles.
I hate it when I am right. I had been predicting something like this for years. No, I am no astronomy expert, but I read a lot of science articles about space. The real experts have been quietly worried about something like this happening to Earth for years. This worry was accelerated by the impact on Jupiter of several large fragments of the Shoemaker-Levy comets back in 1994, which had been predicted by astronomers a year earlier, giving astronomers all over the world time to line up their telescopes and watch the comets hit Jupiter.
The hit was spectacular. Jupiter, a very large gas planet, was lit up from the strike for months; a hole was opened in Jupiter’s atmosphere the size of our Earth, and was visible for weeks afterwards. This fed the scientific community’s interests and anxieties about tracking objects in the sky.
The best book about this, “Comets: Creators and Destroyers,” by David H. Levy, describes how Levy spotted the comet, predicted its trajectory, observing the collision, as well as the differences between an asteroid and a comet.
We have known that meteors strike Earth frequently. Erosion and volcanic activity have erased most of the traces of these impacts, but it is still possible to go to Arizona and see one crater that is a mile across, a collision that occurred only 50,000 years ago.
Oddly enough, just 105 years ago in 1908, there was an “air burst” meteor hit called the Tunguska event, similar to this one, which was over Russia as well. This meteor strike flattened 80 million trees over 830 square miles, with the fatality count unknown.
But Russia being the largest landmass would naturally have the most meteor hits.
The event had puzzled scientists for years, until they figured out that it had been a meteor burst in the air. The meteor, as it skimmed through the atmosphere, would have probably killed many thousands if it had hit a populated area of the Earth.
Perhaps we will choose to ignore this warning. After all, the strike happened in Russia, not here, and nobody died this time. Americans tend to ignore foreign news unless it affects the price of oil. There is a project on paper, Operation Safeguard, that is an attempt to tackle this problem, preparing teens to meet the needs of others in a disaster, but it has not been funded by the present administration. I bet the Russians are not so sanguine. I would not be surprised if President Putin makes at least some effort to talk about preventing future meteor strikes like this one. This strike was seen by hundreds of thousands of people over hundreds of miles, injuring over a thousand from the broken, flying glass. It was a terrifying event to live though.
We should be glad that this strike did not happen, say, in 1962, before technology was advanced enough to analyze the strike quickly, and when Russian-American relations were very tense, around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. It could have set off World War III.
Present technology cannot detect meteors as small as these before they hit. But technology can and will improve if we fund the research into this problem. And present-day astronomers can detect bigger meteors than this one, as long as the funding is in place to watch the skies.
As I said, I have been worrying about something like this happening since 1994. As the mathematician said in Jurassic Park, “I hate it when I am right.” Let’s hope that world leaders learn from this scare that we must fund the astronomers who are watching the sky. I wish that President Obama would fund NASA more generously, as we need to be prepared for any eventuality. At least the Russians, with this shot across the bow, must be considering funding their astronomers and space program, making it an imperative.
Jamie Lutton own Twice Sold Tales on Harvard Avenue. Read more of her work at booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com.