Huge meteor explosion like 10 atom bombs

Flamethrower: The explosion was the second largest of its kind for 30 years. © Getty

The blast happened in December over Russia but has only just been detected. Worryingly, scientists had no idea the meteor was coming. Could there be more and, if necessary, could we stop them?

A meteor tears through the atmosphere at 72,000 mph, heading straight towards Earth. As it approaches it bursts into a huge fireball, before blasting apart in an explosion 10 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

And we didn’t even notice.

Now, scientists at NASA have revealed that a meteor exploded over the Bering Sea, near Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, on December 18. Despite its power, no one observed the fireball because it happened over such a remote region.

More than 100 tons of rock from space hits Earth every day, but most of it burns up. NASA’s planetary defence officer, Lindley Johnson, says that a meteor strike this powerful comes only once or twice a century.

It was the biggest meteor to hit Earth since one burnt up above Chelyabinsk in Russia six years ago. That fireball, which burned 30 times brighter than the Sun, caused a shockwave that injured 1,000 people and shattered windows.

Most worryingly, in both cases, scientists had no idea the collision was coming.

NASA is on a mission to find and track 90% of all near-Earth objects (NEOs) measuring over 140 metres. Space rocks this size have the potential to devastate entire regions of the planet.

However, it could take 30 years to achieve this goal. We are currently only aware of a tiny percentage of dangerous objects. To help, NASA wants to launch a telescope called NEOCam into space, which would allow us to track more meteors than ever.

So what happens if we find a huge asteroid on a catastrophic collision course with Earth?

“Unlike most natural disasters, asteroid impacts are preventable,” says Aaron Miles from the White House.

Last March, NASA published plans for an eight-ton HAMMER spacecraft, which would detonate a huge nuclear bomb to deflect an asteroid off course.

Faced with a cataclysmic event like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, governments might also explore the possibility of building bunkers deep underground or sending colonies of humans to live in space.

But asteroid collisions remain extremely rare. One that scientists are watching closely is Bennu, which will come perilously close to Earth in 2135. The chances of it actually hitting are one in 2,700.

Armageddon?

Should you be worried about asteroids? The chances of being killed by an asteroid are vanishingly small. But for all our research, the Kamchatka and Chelyabinsk meteors highlight the danger of undetected objects. Is there any point worrying about things outside your control?

If we found a “doomsday” asteroid, could we stop it? It would likely be the greatest challenge in human history, requiring huge international cooperation between the US, Russia, China and private companies like SpaceX. Is humanity up to it?

You Decide

  1. Are you worried about meteor collisions?
  2. When will humanity go extinct?

Activities

  1. Write an account of what you would do with your last day on Earth if the planet was about to be destroyed by a giant asteroid.
  2. Research one of the main ways that scientists are considering for how to survive a doomsday asteroid. Make a three-minute presentation explaining how it would work.

Some People Say...

“Most evolving lineages, human or otherwise, when threatened with extinction, don't do anything special to avoid it.”

George C Williams

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Prior to the Chelyabinsk meteor, the last big impact happened in 1908 when an asteroid crashed into a forested area near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Siberia. Hundreds of animals were incinerated, and 80 million trees were bowled over by the shockwave. One eyewitness said, “the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire.”
What do we not know?
How many asteroids pose a threat to Earth. There are many millions of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, but the vast majority of them will never stray close to Earth. NASA believes it has found more than 95% of asteroids more than one kilometre wide, but mid-size asteroids that could destroy a continent are harder to locate.

Word Watch

Meteor
Meteoroids are small bits of rock orbiting the Sun. When they enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, they are called meteors. Meanwhile, an asteroid is the name for a larger rock.
Hiroshima
A city in Japan that was hit with a nuclear bomb launched by the US on August 6, 1945. It was the first time nuclear weapons were ever used in combat. In 1998, a study concluded that over 202,000 died as a result of the bombing and its fallout.
Chelyabinsk
The meteor was widely captured on film by witnesses. Locals said the air in the Russian city smelled of sulphur.
Near-Earth objects
According to NASA, NEOs are “comets and asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth’s neighbourhood.”
HAMMER
Hyper-velocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response.
Dinosaurs
An asteroid hit the Earth 66 million years ago. It killed 75% of the animals and plants alive at that time. The impact probably caused huge earthquakes, fires and tsunamis.
Underground
Depending on the size of the asteroid, this could allow humans to survive the weeks and months after an impact while the surface of Earth is uninhabitable.

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