And then it just Hit Me.

  Thirty years ago, five points of light appeared on the Soviet Union’s early detection system for incoming ballistics. The attack was recorded 80km south-east of Moscow in a small military centre named Serpukhov-15, the western control for Oko: a satellite system designed to monitor missile launches from mainland United States. This detection, if responded to as mandated, was to be the first trumpet blown in the brief dissonant coda to our species’ troubled life. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was duty officer in Serpukhov-15 when Oko spotted the end coming, and in the five minutes he had to decide on whether to press the red button, he found the resolve, or the cowardice, in himself to refrain. The unprovoked attack was nothing like what had been predicted by command; five missiles would not be enough to put the Soviets to bed, Petrov intuited. Countless lives were spared immolation because he was in equal parts lucky and right; the ballistics detected were aberrations caused by rare atmospheric conditions. We are fortunate then that what happened over Chelyabinsk, no mere aberration, happened in February of 2013. If it had happened thirty years ago, the twinkle in your father’s eye would have been the reflected splendour of ten thousand nuclear warheads setting the atmosphere off like cotton soaked in kerosene. Even Petrov would have been overwhelmed into flattening the red button by the searing brilliance of it. But maybe fortunate isn’t the word.

  By now, I hope we have all gorged ourselves on the extensive footage available of the event, which frankly couldn’t have happened in a better place. Not that I wish any harm on the Russians or that they would even notice. No, Russian skies were the perfect stage because the nation’s corrupt police force makes the dashboard camera in a car as necessary an installation as the steering wheel or the gun. If it wasn’t for police officers with greasy palms we’d all be impoverished of the thousand-angled footage. For the unenlightened, it went like this.

  On February 15th, without warning, a 17-metre wide, 11,000-tonne asteroid entered the atmosphere above Russia falling at 18km per second. The atmosphere took most of the stink off and broke the asteroid into many pieces — now called meteors — until the drag incensed the largest fragment into an explosive air burst 23.3km above Chelyabinsk. The meteor released 0.4 petajoules of energy in a concussive shockwave that injured over a thousand people and caused over US$100million in damages. In the metric most utilised when communicating meteor events: that is equivalent to six Hiroshima blasts. [1] Coincidentally, this happened just hours before the 30-metre wide 2012-DA14 flew between the Earth and the orbital height of its geosynchronous satellites, such as those of the Oko system; like a bullet hitting the brim of your hat. We know it was mere coincidence because the objects’ trajectories betrayed vastly different origins, but coincidences collated by our pattern-loving brains form a narrative of inevitability — and, in this instance, that could be a good thing. Although it would be easy to be pessimistic remembering what happened after Apophis.

   The most famous astronomer in the world, Neil deGrasse Tyson, whipped up interest during 2006 for the biggest asteroidal threat to our planet: 2004-MN4. The object presented a 2.7 per cent chance of colliding with Earth in 2029, which was so unprecedented the asteroid earned the official name of Apophis, Egyptian god of uncreation. [2] If 325-metre wide Apophis was to land on Earth, it would certainly be the most catastrophic event recorded. Just how catastrophic? According to predictions made by researchers at Imperial College London and Purdue University, [3] an asteroid the size of 2012-DA14 — the one that passed between your scalp and the satellite providing your single uncle with Foxtel — would have released six times the air burst energy as the one over Chelyabinsk; 7km closer to ground-level too. One that was 85-metres in diameter would release 177 times the energy at only 400-metres above ground; low enough to land right in the lap of someone drinking a banana daiquiri in the Petronas Towers’ sky-lounge. Apophis would enter the atmosphere with the energy of 7845 Chelyabinsk meteors — over 47000 Hiroshima blasts [4] — skipping the mid-air conflagration crap to leave a crater 4.3km wide and the same across. [5] Tyson rendered the catastrophe well enough, in his folksy, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air sort of way, but did a better job suggesting how we might avert it. The most feasible plan was to detonate a nuclear weapon above the surface of Apophis, just far enough so as not fracture it, but still to irradiate a layer of surface material. The material blowing off Apophis would nudge it off its trajectory. While not as satisfying as blowing it up, like in Armageddon, [6] it does have the noted advantage of not simply partitioning doom into smaller pieces. Tyson also proposed hovering near the rock with a ship so massive its gravitational attraction would skew Apophis’ trajectory, essentially towing it out of the way. A nudge was the objective of all solutions, including some of the zanier ones, like painting the object white (probably with chalk) to absorb more solar radiation, erecting sails on it to catch the solar wind, strapping a rocket onto it, and shooting it with fucking lasers. Of course, those options involve inventing many technologies, which would increase the minimum warning time needed — a decade — to perhaps multiples of that. And that’s with a good deal of luck in our breast pocket too. Luckily, nothing had to be researched, and no money had to be spent because further observations by NASA and others ruled out the apocalypse in 2029. The date of impact was revised to 2036 and the likelihood to 0.018 per cent; then down to 0.002 per cent; 0.0004 per cent; to currently a 0.000000714 per cent chance — that’s 1 in 140 million — of colliding with Earth in 2036. [7] Everyone was free to resume mid-thought that funding space exploration and pure astrophysical research was wasteful again. [8]

  However, with the Chelyabinsk event (the biggest impact in 100 years) [9] and the closest fly-by in recorded history (2012-DA14) happening within hours of each other, the world realised anew that we live on a mote of dust. Two days after Chelyabinsk, NASA put US$5million into the reassuringly named Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS). A day after that, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) announced US$2million for an asteroid defence program. Then nothing. Endless catastrophising news pieces and sound bites from vainglorious scientists (I’m looking at you, Tyson) have thankfully settled, but so has any renewed impetus. When it wasn’t absolutely certain that we were all going to die, attention wavered and decisions stopped being made; a gratingly familiar scenario.

  A “We the People” petition is currently open to raise NASA’s budget to one per cent of the 2014 US federal budget, [10] a level it hasn’t been at since 1993 when the Hubble telescope was newly launched and increasing humanity’s store of wonder in ways never dreamed of. Of the 100,000 signatures needed by April 6th to prompt an official reply from the Whitehouse, it has 5,521 of them. Even before January’s joke petition to build a real Death Star screwed the pooch by forcing the limit up to 100,000 signatures from the 25,000 it easily surpassed, the petition for NASA has fewer signatures than I have regrets. NASA recently addressed US congress on March 19th asking for a funding increase for programs to observe and deflect asteroids, and the reply from the committee chairman Lamar Smith was, “Maybe we can help you out. Don’t know.” As if NASA was a burnt-out tweaker asking a dealer for an extra rock, just to get them through the Easter drought. This is a global problem and a penurious NASA hurts us all. Cuts to NASA have already caused them to withdraw funding for Australia’s Siding Spring Survey, the only programme tracking near-Earth objects that may nail the southern hemisphere. Come this July, power will be shut off, and the slack won’t be picked up until Chile’s Large Synoptic Survey Telescope begins operation in 2020. That is seven years where the entire bottom half of this planet is open to cavitation. Potentially there are over one million asteroids with Earth-approaching orbits, with only a fraction accounted for. 95 per cent of the real world-enders are tracked and catalogued, and none pose a threat within a time span like seven years, [11] but only 10 per cent of objects between 140-metres to 1km in diameter are known. Only one per cent in the 30-100m range are known of, and anything less than 30-meters across is all but invisible to current technology. And we have seen what 17-metres of banshee rock can do.

  The proposals to get us and our technologies to a level where we won’t be vulnerable to sudden ruin were promptly made after Chelyabinsk, and just as promptly forgotten about or rejected. We need a truly international effort to observe, catalogue, and heaven forbid, deflect objects heading to our planet. A global effort will be of even greater import if the object can’t be deterred, and ruin is inevitable. Nothing short of full scale nuclear war would elicit such dire humanitarian need.

  So we are back to Petrov and his big red button. I mentioned the story at the outset because the world Petrov lived in was one of misplaced hysteria; and worse yet, misplaced focus. We so often live in a dread of our own making, and act full-bloodedly in ways to combat that dread. But when the adversity is truly global, truly cosmic, we yield to cosy ambivalence. It’s a pattern in the psyche of our species of ape. We struggle unthinkingly to put the match to that cotton, but in one white moment, none of it will matter.

  Does this remind you of anything else?

 

[1] And, by my calculations, almost enough to power the ghastly Manly LGA at 2012’s rate of electrical consumption for a whole year. A similar event which I lamentably haven’t the space to write about occurred over Tunguska in 1908 — also in Russia. Boy, they can’t catch a break, can they? — and let off enough energy to keep Manly going until 2165. Chilling.

[2] Apophis is the Greek appellation for whom the Egyptians called Apep.

[3] These predictions are for a stony asteroid moving at 12.7km per second, so the actual figures would vary of course.

[4] Making Manly The Eternal City.

[5] Assuming many things: trajectory, asteroid composition, asteroid fragmentation and place of impact in sedimentary rock.

[6] I know you’ve seen Armageddon and I know you liked it too. I also know that you wouldn’t think the most outrageous detail — mining an asteroid, namely — would be the only part of the film in the extended catchment area of reality. In truth, NASA uses Armageddon in its management training program as it contains 168 astronomical impossibilities, but landing craft to mine an asteroid for its metal guts is not one of them. Quarries of rare elements like platinum, palladium, and gold, and the more workman-like iron, cobalt, and nickel fill the orbital plane between Mars and Jupiter; indeed, the only reason the metals are in the Earth’s crust is because asteroids impregnated the infant planet with them. Bonkers as it sounds, it has been estimated that they contain enough wealth to furnish every blessed one of us with US$100billion. With that sort of dosh up for grabs it’s hardly surprising that the earliest projections figure extensive mining projects to begin in 2023.

[7] Apophis currently has a slightly larger chance of landing in 2068: 0.00023 per cent.

[8] A sentiment that reached critical mass during the launch of the Curiosity mission to Mars last year, exposing the depths of pettiness in people who denounced the mission as a waste — primarily on twitter, ironically. For all we can expect the Curiosity mission to teach us, it was scant investment. Here’s the perspective: the US plans to pimp-out its air force with 2443 F-35 fighter jets which, conservatively, cost around $250million each. That’s near a decapitating $600billion: enough for 240 Curiosity rovers to turn Mars into small parking lot. One we’re going to need when we’re forced to move there.

[9] Since Tunguska.

[10] NASA’s budget for 2013 is US$19billion, less than half of one per cent of the total federal budget.

[11] As of now, the highest known chance of collision comes on the vapour trail of 1950-DA. It has a diameter of 1.1km — only 7-11 per cent the rock that took care of the dinosaurs, but enough to make a strong statement — and a maximum 0.33 per cent chance of hitting the Earth on March 16, 2880. It’s only a 1 in 300 shot, but if it did land it wouldn’t come a moment too soon, to gracefully spare the world from the 949th St Patrick’s Day in a row.

Gonzalo Peralta

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