Entry 242: Sitting on Their Asteroids

It’s nice that our children have not had to grow up, as we did, with the threat of thermonuclear war.

Generation X, or Y, or Z, or whatever letter they’re onto these days, is not living in fear of nikita_200x150-547ff5e7c916a4c0f74d645c3c784319ac444fa4-s6-c30[1]Armageddon arriving from the sky in the form of a missile from the Soviet Union (what’s that, dad?), and the only things coming to the U.S. out of Cuba these days are baseball players.

What can I say? I guess Kim Jong-Un just can’t pull off the “die, Americans” scowl like Khrushchev could.

I do know this: today’s kids are much better informed than we were. I don’t think they’d buy the whole “Don’t worry; you’ll be safe from the nuclear holocaust if you just hide under your desk” routine.

DuckandC1951.ogg[1]So is there something our kids should be afraid of? Something that will cause our demise in a more immediate, cataclysmic, blockbuster-movie style than global warming eventually will?  Well, as it turns out, we have something in common with our children after all. Because they, too, should be concerned about instant death from the sky.

In fact, our government is actually enlisting our help in averting exactly that. Of course, it’s not a nuke the government is worried about.  It’s asteroids, like the one that recently hit, somewhat ironically, Russia.*

Here is NASA issuing its Grand Asteroid Challenge:

“NASA already is working to find asteroids that might be a threat to our planet, and while we have found 95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth’s orbit, we need to find all those that might be a threat to Earth. This Grand Challenge is focused on detecting and characterizing asteroids and learning how to deal with potential threats. We will also harness public engagement, open innovation and citizen science to help solve this global problem.”

Well, first of all, there doesn’t seem to be a prize involved. The last Grand Asteroid atari2[1]Challenge I know of, run by a nameless bar in Ozone Park, Queens in 1979, awarded the top scorer a free pitcher of Schlitz.  You’d think NASA could come up with something better than that, wouldn’t you?  An appearance on Survivor? An ” I saved the planet what am I going to do next” trip to Disneyland? A NASA t-shirt at least? After all, “detecting and characterizing asteroids” sounds like a lot of work. Is the ongoing existence of our planet really enough incentive?

220px-Diet_Coke_Mentos[1]More importantly, does anybody else have a problem with this whole approach? I mean, I don’t mind relying on “citizen science” to demonstrate what happens when you mix Mentos and Diet Coke, but I would rather have professionals working on the problem of defending us from plummeting space rocks.

The truth is, while scientists have catalogued 95% of the big asteroids that are capable of annihilating the planet, they’re falling a little short on the smaller rocks, which are described as being 30-40 meters in size. In case you missed the seven years when America converted to the metric system (1975-1982), having a 30-meter asteroid fall on you would be like getting hit with a bowling ball…if that bowling ball had been enlarged to about 130 times its normal size.

But that’s a pebble compared to the asteroid that finished off the dinosaurs, which explains why NASA has concentrated on the big guys. On the other hand, since each of these mini-roids can destroy a good-sized city, it would be kind of nice to know their intentions.

Yet NASA says it only knows about 1% of them. Which means there’s an awful lot of space gravel floating around out there waiting for the cosmic equivalent of a pick-up truck to spin its wheels and kick some of it toward Earth.

My first question about this is, how does NASA know they only know about 1% of them?  How do you know how many you don’t know about?  If it’s Passover, and I hide the matzoh but I don’t tell you how many pieces I’ve hidden and you find four pieces, how do you know what percentage of them you’ve found?  More pertinently, what’s going to prevent me from sitting on the one I hid under the sofa cushion and forgot about so there are all these crumbs in the couch which are going to attract ants? And, even more crucially, how many verses of “Dayenu” is Aunt Tilde going to screech before we can eat?

Where was I?

You may be wondering why all the asteroids haven’t been found regardless of size. After all, astronomers seem to be able to locate black holes a zillion light years away and they’re holes! There’s nothing there! If you can find nothing, you should be able to find something, right?

Well, according to National Geographic, “some experts believe it’s because we currently look for them from the Earth’s surface—and our equipment just isn’t sensitive enough to pick out these tinier asteroids, which are very faint and very dark.”

So, in other words, we’re all going to be blown to bits by a behemoth boulder unless all of the amateur scientists not on the Earth’s surface pitch in and help?  Plus the amateurs need equipment more sensitive than NASA’s?  Jeez–why don’t you just drop a rock on my head now and get it over with?  I’d feel safer if they just gave me a tube of Preparation A.

So to recap: NASA has no idea of the location of 99% of the asteroids that can make any idaymajor metropolis look like it just appeared in a Roland Emmerich movie. They’ve found most of the really big ones–the low hanging fruit as it were–but they’ve left the tough ones for Mr. Wallesky’s 9th Grade Astronomy Class to locate as soon as the nerdy kid that no one likes completes his science fair project, which coincidentally happens to be a working rocketship, and the whole class can fly off into space to look for asteroids. And, really, what parent is going to sign the consent form for that trip?

I guess there’s really nothing left to do except hope that none of those asteroids hits us and, if one does, that our desks will protect us.

See you soon.

*I’m not sure if the thing that hit Russia was technically an asteroid or a meteorite. I’m also not sure I care.

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