It is nearly impossible to stop paying attention to scary things, once they’re revealed. And in a click-hungry Internet media landscape (hey: guilty as charged), it is even harder not to want to write articles that you know are going to get clicks, even if they aren’t the most reputable or useful content.
So now that we’ve had our meteor visit in Russia and lots of “near misses” by other space debris – including one that came closer to us than our own satellites – it is easy to spend a lot of time and energy on these types of things. Why not? It is both scary and awe-inspiring to think of things unknown to us floating in space on a collision course with our Earth:
Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, thinks we can do something about that. Hubbard, a former director of NASA Ames Research Center, is also the program architect for the B612 Foundation, which aims to track down the hundreds of thousands of unknown asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.
But the uncomfortable truth is that the Big Bang never stopped and the placid, gently floating galaxy you saw in Discovery Channel documentaries simply doesn’t exist. The universe is a dynamic, ongoing explosion, filled with lots of gas, lots of planets, lots of stars and yes, lots and lots of debris. The Earth itself is orbiting the Sun at a rate of approximately 67k miles an hour, which is itself rotating around the Milky Way at an estimated 8,700 miles per hour.
Basically, you’ve got a lot of crap spinning at a super-high rate of speed around a lot of other crap. And with more than a little regularity, some crap collides with other crap and you get a giant, intergalactic crap explosion. Bigger the crap, bigger the explosion.
And as pitifully expendable sacs of protoplasm stuck on Earth, we worry that even a small bit of debris could end us.
Galactically speaking, not an unreasonable concern. But what happened in Russia – and the media frenzy that ensued – is evidence not of our vulnerability, but of the extraordinary rareness of such events on a human scale. Debris hits our planet with perhaps disconcerting regularity, but does so completely unnoticed most of the time. That’s because not all space debris is measured in bus or football field lengths. And those large objects that do occasionally hit our planet happen on a regular albeit slow schedule, without wiping out life on Earth, let alone the Earth herself.
Sure. A city the size of San Francisco could suddenly cease to be. But hey! As long as you’re not there, you can say you “remember them when.”
The truth is that as dynamic and violent as our universe is, it is also quite big. And collisions with our Earth of the type we worry about are extremely rare. So I would hold off on that shooting spree you’ve been contemplating: there’s every reason to believe you’ll still be here to pay the piper.