I guess everybody has heard about 2012 DA14 by now.
DA14 is an asteroid that’s going to zip by next Friday at a comfortable 17,200 miles above the Earth’s surface.
“But wait!” you exclaim, “that sounds close!”
Damn right. It’s closer than some satellites.
There are a few troubling things about DA14, other than the fact it’s the size of an office building and could flatten a major city.
First, the reason it’s called 2012 DA14 is that we didn’t even know it was there until last year.
Granted, there are a lot of asteroids up there, and DA14’s petite 150 foot diameter could have slipped by unnoticed. Thank goodness a group of alert astronomers in Spain saw the thing.
Before you get all fidgety about the End of the World As We Know It, keep it mind that DA14 isn’t the size of the rock that killed all the dinosaurs. This one, should it hit Earth, would do so with the equivalent destructive power of 2.4 million tons of TNT. (In 1908 an asteroid of similar size plowed into Siberia and leveled all the trees in an area of more than 820 square miles. That’s all.)
There’s a former astronaut named Ed Lu who runs the B612 Foundation which is “dedicated to protecting humanity from asteroids.” Ed says that the fact DA14 wasn’t spotted until last year means it was already too late to try to stop it.
In a further note of encouragement about the future of the World As We Know It, Ed said on NPR that “we only know the locations and trajectories of about 1 percent of asteroids this size or larger. So for every one of them, there’s 99 out there we don’t know about.” http://www.npr.org/2013/02/08/171412450/close-shave-asteroid-to-buzz-earth-next-week
Equally as troubling are the assurances by NASA that DA14 won’t hit us. I have a great deal of respect for the scientists who watch and track asteroids, but I am troubled by their language. To wit: (also from NPR.)
“There really hasn’t been a close approach that we know about for an object of this size.” Donald Yeomans, NASA.
“The asteroid seems to be passing in the sweet spot between the GPS satellites and the communications and weather satellites.” Dr. Yeomans again.
“Its flight path is well-understood enough to know there’s no chance it will hit the Earth.”
According to the same NPR story, NASA says this “fly by” will be one for the record books. It is the first time scientists have been able to predict something so big coming so close.
I am not comforted.
I mean, I am confident that Dr. Yeomans and his colleagues know a heck of a lot about if and when the Earth will be trashed by a rogue asteroid. But you will note that no one has used the words “impossible,” or “absolutely,” or “don’t sweat it,” or “don’t cancel your plans for Saturday.”
Here’s the kicker, fellow citizens: NASA is part of the Federal Government. It is the Federal Government that has given us TSA, the FDA and the U.S. House of Representatives.
To settle down those members of the populace to whom the last minute discovery of an asteroid coming within 17,200 miles of Earth is a point of some concern, (and I quote the NPR story,)
“an official at NASA headquarters said the agency is continually looking for ways to improve its ability to spot smaller asteroids – within the constraints of its budget.”
So somewhere buried in the zillion page Federal Budget is an amount of money less than probably needed dedicated to preventing the human race from being obliterated by an asteroid we didn’t know was coming.
That makes me feel better, but I’m still stocking up on toilet paper and strawberry Pop Tarts. You can’t be too careful.