Just what are the odds that a massive asteroid will enter Earth's atmosphere and destroy a city? And shouldn't we be prepared for such an eventuality?
NASA went before a congressional committee Tuesday (March 19) and gave them news that was "not reassuring" when it came to tracking near-Earth objects and being able to provide enough warning to thwart a direct strike by a meteor that could possibly cause catastrophic damage. In fact, NASA officials said, according to NBC News, that Congress could fund the Near-Earth Object program and increase odds of tracking and/or gaining an advantage in divert a dangerous space object -- or they could pray.
Once only an interesting notion of science fiction novels and movies, the idea of a catastrophic meteor strike on planet Earth has become accepted as an inevitability in recent years. So what are the chances that an asteroid big enough to take out a city might actually do so? The universe is a huge place. In fact, the Earth's place in the Solar System is a relatively small and mobile area in comparison to the total area of space surrounding it. So the chances of something big enough to do some real damage to the Earth - like take out a city -- is relatively minor -- right?
According to calculation done at Per Square Mile by Tim de Chant, the odds of a large asteroid hitting the Earth is 1 in a million. (De Chant does not specify what a large asteroid would be, but it is most likely an asteroid big enough to take out a city, so...) The chances of said asteroid hitting a city on our spinning world is 1.3 in a 1,000. The chances of a large asteroid hitting the Earth and destroying a city is 1.3 in a billion. (De Chant ends his infographic with the caption, "I wouldn't worry about it.")
But some are worried.
In light of the meteor that came apart over Chelyabinsk, Russia, last month -- a meteor estimated to have been big enough to have taken out a city had it directly impacted an urban location -- there is increased interest in at least getting some kind of warning system operational.
The Chelyabinsk meteor was an undetected object.
Asteroid 2012 DA14, a near-Earth object that passed by the Earth in February the same day as the Chelyabinsk airburst, was undetected until February 2012. At first thought to be headed on a collision course with Earth, tracking the large asteroid (which was half the size of a football field) soon allowed astronomers to calculate that it would miss the Earth.
To compare: the Chelyabinsk meteor was estimated at 17 meters (55 feet) in diameter when it disintegrated. It exploded with a blast equal to the yield of a 500 kiloton bomb, according to NASA. The upper yields of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs dropped during World War II were 18 and 22 kilotons, and those weapons destroyed cities.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has estimated that even at current levels of funding ($20 million -- up from $5 million a couple years ago), it would still take until 2030 to catalog and characterize some 90 percent of the near-Earth object traffic between 140 meters (459 feet) and a kilometer (0.62 miles) in diameter.
Rep. Lamar Smith, the representative that kept reminding the NASA scientists that their testimony before the committee wasn't reassuring, said, "Maybe we can help you out with the budget. Don't know," Smith replied. He said "we need to find ways to prioritize NASA's projects."
But maybe it's not just a matter of prioritizing NASA's projects but a matter of prioritizing Congress' priorities. Instead of allowing millionaires to write off jet fuel on the income taxes (a now infamous tax loophole) in what amounts to a luxury expenditure for a luxury item, the money that the government would likely retain from not allowing the exemption would probably more than provide adequate money for something like the Near-Earth Object Project.
Wonder what the odds are of a meteor hitting a millionaire's airplane? Regardless, if one meteor gets through the atmosphere and impacts the Earth in a major populated area (like Chelyabinsk), it will be a devastating wake-up call for the world. And people will look back on the Chelyabinsk and 2012 DA14 coincidence and ask why that hadn't been enough to move world governments to action.