I have had an interest in astronomy for much of my life, and for much of the past 15 years or so that interest has focused on comets and asteroids. I even own a fragment of a meteorite that I keep on a shelf with my science books (along with my jar of ash from Mt. St. Helens – that’s another story). Years ago I wrote a paper on the Impact Theory as the cause of the dinosaur extinction and have been fascinated by the subject ever since, even going as far as to visit several impact crater sites in the Southeastern United States: Wetumpka; Flynn Creek; and Wells Creek. And I even managed to have an e-mail discussion with the Dr. Walter Alvarez that I was able to incorporate into my paper. I dare say that was one of the most memorable and meaningful experiences of my life.
This week, two distinctive events have brought the subject of cosmic impacts on the Earth back to the forefront of my mind: the spectacularly close passing of Asteroid 2012 DA14 tonight; and the equally spectacular destruction of a slightly smaller meteorite (about 1/3 the size of 2012 DA14) over the Ural Mountains that actually caused damage to buildings and injuries to bystanders.
I have read about many impacts and theoretical impacts over the years, and of course the Tunguska event is the most well-known, the yardstick by which so many other events have been and will continue to be compared. The destructive power of these events is astonishing. And the potential for destruction on a large scale is breathtaking. But it is also amazing, from a certain point of view, that in all of human history there is not a single event to which we can definitively point and say “this large object falling from the sky killed people”. There isn’t one. Now, that isn’t to say that no such event has happened, because it is possible that one has and we just have no record of it. But in the modern age, with everyone with a smart phone essentially carrying around a pretty good digital camera and the means to transmit those images or videos anywhere, it is a lot more likely that such events will be documented as this recent one in the Urals was. And that is a great thing for scientists, and for those of us amateurs interested in the way the cosmos works, because as more evidence is collected and more events are studied we can better understand these events and the dangers they may pose for us.
So maybe the government (and I am looking at you, Congress) will finally get off its duff and spend the relatively paltry amount of money needed to make us a bit safer, or at least give us a heads-up if something really dangerous is incoming. Wouldn’t that be nice? After all, if we were actually going to experience something like the events in Lucifer’s Hammer or Cannibal Reign* it would be nice to know a little in advance, wouldn’t it?
*I included a link to a review, rather than just a Wikipedia article link, because this reviewer pretty much saw the book the same way I did, almost to a T.