Monday, June 27, 2011

Another fine miss

Remember a while back when I posted about asteroid impacts?

Today…that’s right, todayasteroid 2011 MD will miss Earth by about 7,500 miles.  That qualifies as a “near miss” in astronomical terms.  In fact, the asteroid will dip beneath the orbit of a few of our communication satellites.  This comes on the heels of another miss earlier in the year with that one coming as close as 3,400 miles.  The UK’s Daily Mail lists today’s asteroid as being the size of an “office block.”  The estimates from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory measure it as being about ten meters…which really makes me wonder about the size of “office blocks” in Britain.  At any rate, an object that size and at that proximity should be bright enough to be seen tonight with an amateur telescope. 
Smaller asteroids such as 2011 MD and the one from earlier in the year are difficult to detect in the depths of space.  In both cases, we had only about one week’s warning that they were even nearby.  NASA, however, maintains a “no big deal” viewpoint.  Neither 2011 MD nor its earlier predecessor had any real chance of striking Earth.  Even if one of them had, the consequences would have been locally disastrous (think nuclear blast-sized) and not a worldwide catastrophe.  That attitude makes me wonder if they really would tell us the truth if it were otherwise.

I can understand how such a perspective of shoulder shrugging comes about.  The odds of a truly massive asteroid impact aren’t all that high.  We’re at much greater risk of having our power grid knocked out by massive solar flares.  There is also the matter of trajectory when it comes to asteroids.  If one does enter the atmosphere and it happens to be at a shallow angle, the object might very well bounce back out into space.  If the approach is a steep one and the object is the size of 2011 MD, then the asteroid would burn faster and break up in the atmosphere, thereby attenuating the danger.  But history teaches us that massive asteroid impacts are a fact.  They have happened before in our planet’s cosmic history and will likely happen again.  This leads many in the populace to say, “Oh well.  What can we do about it?”
To that, my answer is always “a robust detection system and a viable plan of repulsion.”

But then if the Republicans have their way…

Here's another article on 2011 MD that apparently had a superior copy editor to the one that went over the Washington Post's article.

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