You may not have realized this, but the world came very close to ending last Sunday night. Save for the space of a few miles, a gigantic meteor might have crashed into our planet. An impact would have reduced everything nearby to rubble, possibly caused worldwide earthquakes and tsunamis, and thrown a plume of ash into the atmosphere so large it would envelop the entire planet.
Now, sources not as sensibly alarmist as I might try to convince you that this particular meteor was not a big deal. They will tell you that the meteor was really only about thirty feet long—about one half of a bowling lane—which isn’t big enough to do all that much damage. They will also tell you that earth was perfectly safe, and that the meteor passed our blue planet quietly, from a happy distance of about 310,000 miles.
These sources are lying.
Or at least, they are lying to themselves. I think it must be the only way they can cope, these panicked scientists who scan the skies for deadly space bullets/meteors. (Imagine if they found one! Imagine if they didn’t find it in time.)
First of all, 310,000 miles is incredibly close. That’s barely farther away than our moon—and we’ve been to the moon! Astronomically speaking, it’s like William Tell took aim at us, and somehow shot an arrow in the molecular space between the apple and our head.
And as for this meteor’s size, for a planet as unlucky as ours when it comes to cosmic collisions, the presence of any meteor is cause for mass hysteria. It’s not like the dinosaurs all died in one exact and traumatic moment—many of them were left to slowly choke to death in the newly toxic atmosphere, or struggle futilely to survive in their dramatically changed environments. And they had existed for ages, far longer than humans have. Dinosaurs had a run of about 165 million years, and we homo sapiens? We’ve been around for about two. Cosmologically speaking, we’re in our infancy, and a single meteor could snuff it all out. (And, ok, even if the meteor was only thirty feet long—what if it hit you?!)
Now these panicked scientists (who probably have to wear mouth guards at night to stop their teeth from grinding) would insist that they are “working on it.” They would tell you that they’ve developed an early warning system, perkily named “Scout.” “Scout” charts the trajectory and size of nearby space objects, so that we’ll know beforehand if we’re all about to explode into a million billion tiny pieces.
Of course (the scientists will get more and more frantic as they explain) this system is only in its first testing phase. And other finalized projects similar to Scout have had several scary and threatening meteors slip past their nets. For instance, the twenty-metre wide one that exploded dramatically in the sky above Chelyabinsk, Russia with absolutely no warning.
However, if Scout fails, there’s also “Sentry.” This program searches for more distant space objects, ones large enough to at least take out whole cities. It’s already tallied up an alarming 655 apocalypse-mongers. “And of course,” the scientists will say, now crying, “there are way more out there we just haven’t found yet.”
Now assuming there is (probably) a giant death meteor hurtling our way, we wouldn’t be able to do very much about it. We’d need about fifty years of notice beforehand to even have a chance of nudging it out of a collision path. And of course, that’s just assuming we do locate it. In the vast reaches of space, pinpointing a relatively small meteor isn’t exactly like finding the keys you lost in the apartment.
All isn’t perfectly lost, however. Consider this, in the event of a surprise meteor crashing into our planet; we’ll have—small mercies—about two minutes to look back and reflect on our lives between atmospheric entry and the time the impact actually happens.
Which, come to think of it, is less warning than we’ll probably have when the mega-volcano currently roiling underneath Yellowstone erupts…