Millions of years ago, before man or his predecessor ape walked the planet, dinosaurs ruled the earth. They were enormous and fierce, and these fearsome creatures’ reign was undisputed. No living creatures rose to challenge them for dominance and they would still be the sole occupants of our world were it not for a few rocks.
Yes, the most powerful creatures in existence, lords of the planet, were obliterated from the face of the earth, relegated to illustrated history books and occasional skeletal remains unearthed in archeological digs. The proud dinosaurs, complacent in their arrogant conquest of this planet, paid for their hubris when they were wiped out by meteors.
Space rocks are deserving of respect. They are fast. Asteroids travel 15 miles per second. Meteors, asteroids’ smaller cousins, travel 100 time faster than a rifle bullet, up to 46 miles per second. The dinosaurs never saw it coming.
Today, in unrelated events, an asteroid sideswiped the Earth and a meteor struck the planet. Asteroid 2012 DA14 skimmed closer to our planet than any other known asteroid in recorded history. The 55-foot-long, 130,000-ton asteroid came within Earth’s geosynchronous orbit. Our geostationary satellites orbit the Earth 22,300 miles above the planet; Asteroid 2012 DA14 buzzed us, zooming by at only 17,100 miles above the ground. In space terms, that’s a close shave. But there was no need to worry. You see, Asteroid 2012 DA14 has a name. Astronomers spotted it last year, named it, and tracked it. In fact, scientists have studied this asteroid so extensively they can predict its path for most of the 21st century. NASA has a space probe tracking asteroids and international observatories send NASA's Minor Planet Center their findings to add to its database of all known asteroids in our solar system. Had Asteroid 2012 DA14 appeared on a trajectory to strike the Earth, we had the time and the means to launch a man-made projectile that would nudge an asteroid enough to make it miss us. Which is a good thing, because if an asteroid did hit the planet, it would strike with the force of a 1 million megaton bomb and wipe out everything on Earth.
Meteors are another story. Being smaller, meteors weigh less than asteroids, so unless we get struck by a meteor storm, a single meteor will do limited damage. The one that hit Russia’s remote Ural mountains today weighed only 10 tons. Still, the shock waves from the sonic boom in its wake injured 1,000 people and damaged homes and businesses in the Chelyabinsk region. By the time it had breached Earth’s atmosphere, the meteor’s speed had slowed to a paltry 33,000 mph. But in space, it was much faster, traveling up to 46 miles per second. A lot faster and a lot smaller than an asteroid. That’s why it never had a name — we never saw it coming. Our space agencies are not set up to detect meteors approaching Earth. We could do it; the technology exists. But our government has not provided the funding required to build and calibrate the equipment to do so.
Meteorites fall to Earth several times a year, but large meteor crashes like the one in Russia are rare (It was the biggest and most destructive since the 1908 Tunguska, Siberia meteor crash). The government is gambling on that, so it can save its shekels for wars and tax cuts for the wealthy. Of course, had that meteor struck New York City, Manhattan would have been obliterated. Still, we are the dominant life on the planet, too big to fall. We can afford to be parsimonious with our tax dollars.
Such hubris is worthy of the dinosaurs.