Close encounters of the meteor kind – this weekend

Back in 2013, I wrote a piece that mashed Pope Benedict’s resignation with the science of the meteorite that exploded over Russia. I was Freshly Pressed by WordPress on the back of it. Good stuff.

The fly-by. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.
The fly-by. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

This weekend, a similarly sized chunk of space debris – about 20 metres in diameter – is rolling past Earth with closest approach of just 40,200 km, directly over New Zealand, at 6.18 am on Monday 8 September, NZT (18:18 Zulu, 7 September).

I use the word rolling deliberately. Everything spins in space.

The meteor’s called 20214 RC (R-C) and was detected only on 31 August by the Catalina Sky Survey at Tucson, Arizona. And that raises a point. The spectre of Earth being clobbered by even a modest piece of space detritus has haunted science for decades. Right now, we’re doing something about that – scanning near-Earth space in a hunt for likely impactors.

The orbit. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.
The orbit. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

What we’d do if we found such a thing, other than despatch Bruce Willis, isn’t clear. Nuking them isn’t an option – the evidence is growing that some of these space rocks are just clumps of loose-ish ice and dirt. In any case, you’d end up with a cloud of debris, still hurtling for Earth and still able to deliver virtually the same kinetic blow to the planet. Personally I think we should splash one side of any likely impactor with black paint, but that method (which exploits asymmetric re-radiation of absorbed thermal energy) requires several years’ warning. This new encounter comes just a week after discovery – with all that this implies.

There’s no danger from 20214 RC (R-C). It’s got an orbital period of just over 541.11 days, which is different enough from Earth’s to mean there won’t be another encounter any time soon. But one day the orbital mechanics will mesh and it’ll be back in our vicinity. It won’t be an impact danger. But we don’t know what else is out there.

Yup, you’ve got it. That old sci-fi doom scenario involving a meteor suddenly sloshing the Atlantic into the US Eastern Seaboard and Europe? It’s baaaack…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


9 thoughts on “Close encounters of the meteor kind – this weekend

  1. I discovered your blog thanks to that post. Happy day 😀

    Frankly, I prefer this scenario for the end of the world to the long drawn-out options. I would want to be as close to ground zero as possible, though, to make sure I don’t get stuck in the post-impact dystopian society where some or other completely unrealistic scenario divides society and only one person has the ability to set things right again…

      1. You don’t read a lot of YA dystopian fiction, do you? That one person usually suffers immensely due to their uniqueness, including most of their family and friends getting killed/tortured/brainwashed to try and kill the protagonist. Not to mention the pressure of knowing that if you fail society is doomed for eternity.

  2. Trouble is, there’s a ton of sky to cover. We’re looking for NEOs but we’re not looking everywhere at once. The wizened old men that live in the halls of decision-making say it’s not in the budget. Meanwhile, they’ll be finding the money to give themselves another raise, I expect.

    We really do need to spend more time thinking about space: what’s coming at us from it, and how can the human race find a new home in it. Too often we’re saying there’s not enough money for that. Pish-posh! If we’d stop shooting at each other for a decade or so, we’d find the money. And if (when) another Mt. Everest comes streaking toward us, I have no doubt we’d find the money. Trouble is, by then, we wouldn’t have enough…time.

    1. I agree. If money had been devoted to space at 1960s scales for the last 40 years we’d be on Mars by now. It was certainly available but I suppose Apollo era scale spending was politically unsustainable. Sigh.

  3. But just imagine how annoyed we’d be if we’d spent all that money on technology only to have it fried to oblivion by a solar storm! 😉 I think I’ll just stay in the basement for a while. With some cans of Spam.

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