“Bringing an asteroid back to Earth? What’s that have to do with space exploration? If we were moving outward from there, and an asteroid is a good stopping point, then fine. But now it’s turned into a whole planetary defense exercise at the cost of our outward exploration.” -Buzz Aldrin

Between recent statements from NASA, the American Geophysical Union and Los Alamos National Laboratory, you might think that humanity is overdue for a catastrophic impact from outer space. Indeed, it’s been a long time since we’ve had one that was very destructive, and other than the 1908 Tunguska blast, we haven’t had one that even registered on the Torino Scale in millennia.

Meteor (Barringer) crater, in the Arizona desert, is over 1.1 km (0.7 mi) in diameter, and represents only a 3-10 MegaTon release of energy. A 300-400 meter asteroid strike would release 10-100 times the energy. Image credit: USGS/D. Roddy.

Meteor (Barringer) crater, in the Arizona desert, is over 1.1 km (0.7 mi) in diameter, and represents only a 3-10 MegaTon release of energy. A 300-400 meter asteroid strike would release 10-100 times the energy. Image credit: USGS/D. Roddy.

But the lack of recent events doesn’t mean that our odds of having one are increased in the near future. Quite to the contrary: they are likely a symptom of the fact that we’re living in an epoch where the odds of an impact are among the lowest they’ve ever been in human history. While the probability is still non-zero in any given year, and while space exploration and studying our Universe is of great importance, it isn’t to save our world from a killer rock from outer space.

Asteroids in the early Solar System were more numerous, and cratering was catastrophic. The rate has plummeted over the past 4.5 billion years. Image credit: NASA / GSFC, BENNU’S JOURNEY - Heavy Bombardment.

Asteroids in the early Solar System were more numerous, and cratering was catastrophic. The rate has plummeted over the past 4.5 billion years. Image credit: NASA / GSFC, BENNU’S JOURNEY – Heavy Bombardment.

It’s possible to be aware of an appreciate space without being terrified of it. Find out what the science actually says!

Comments

  1. #1 Omega Centauri
    December 14, 2016

    This latest release strikes me as an attempt at Phishing the incoming president. Maybe he will throw big resources at NASA if they can convince him? The labs of course would supply the Nuclear explosive expertise, they would love to be seen in a new light.

  2. #2 Wow
    December 14, 2016

    But we need to ask ourselves: would such a strike be a catastrophe? After all, we’ve had many asteroid strikes as big or bigger than this.

  3. #3 Carl
    USA
    December 14, 2016

    Of course it would be a catastrophe. The news media must have catastrophes to drive their business.

  4. #4 Wow
    December 14, 2016

    Ah, but it CAN’T be, because deniers think if it happened before and we’re here, it can’t be a catastrophe!

  5. #5 Jason
    863 Hay Street, Perth WA 6000
    December 14, 2016

    It seems like what was portrait in the film called “What’s your name”, it could destroy the entire city.

  6. #6 PJ
    Perth, west Oz
    December 14, 2016

    @#5
    using the wifi at the espresso bar, perhaps?
    🙂

  7. #7 mehrdad
    December 15, 2016

    Striking of a big asteroid directly to earth is more dangerous or striking it to our moon and diviating it toward earth and the results of moon’s gravity on oceans on earth

  8. #8 CFT
    December 15, 2016

    It does sound like NASA is trying to reinvent itself…again. Maybe they should hire Saturday Night Live’s Mr. Bill to be their spokesman, he could cry “Oh Nooooooooooes!” right after they make their pitch before congress for funding.
    .
    NASA already has enough on their plate without asking for more. They should stick to making rocket boosters that don’t blow up, and space probes don’t crash into planets because of pesky programming issues.

  9. #9 Hank Roberts
    at the reference desk, again
    December 15, 2016

    Time to finish the Orion spacecraft design, just so we have it handy.

  10. #10 Hank Roberts
    ah, Dyson says they're working on it ....
    December 15, 2016

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