ASTEROIDS AND EXTINCTION-LEVEL EVENTS - SPACE DISASTERS - Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead - Robert Brockway

Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead - Robert Brockway (2010)


Asteroids, radiation, frigid vacuums, and hostile aliens—let’s face it: space sucks, sometimes literally. Space doesn’t bring you flowers, or nurture abandoned puppies back to health. Space doesn’t provide delicious sandwiches at the company picnic or help old ladies across the street. It doesn’t do one damn nice thing for you; it basically just plots your death from the abyssal void of nothingness. Sinister threats from outer space may seem like science fiction to you, but it’s only science fiction until it’s landing on your damn head. Also, if you really stop and think about it, there’s a lot more of space than there are of us.

My God … don’t … don’t look now, but I think it’s everywhere. Space has got us surrounded!


AN EXTINCTION-LEVEL Event (ELE) is a massive die-off of the majority of life on our planet, and they often seem to be caused by a particularly devastating asteroid impact. It’s not exactly a subtle or mysterious phenomenon. In a nutshell: big rock, big explosion. There’s not much to do but die as hard as you possibly can. When most people think of major meteor strikes, they typically think of distant prehistoric events, like the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago when an asteroid roughly six miles in diameter struck the Earth at a place called Chicxulub, which we now call Mexico, and began the most dramatic extinction in history. (It was not the largest extinction period: That dubious honor falls to the Permian-Triassic extinction event. But while the P-Tr event killed off most of the world’s insects, the Chicxulub event managed to slay every single real live dragon at once, and that’s the kind of dramatic flair that squashing a trillion bugs just does not possess.) Because we associate ELEs with such disasters in the long-distant past, the tendency is to think that catastrophic asteroid strikes are strictly relegated to ancient history when, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Meteors hit the Earth like your dad hits the bottle every time you disappoint him, which is to say very often, and very, very hard.

For example, see March 22, 2008, when a one-thousand-foot diameter asteroid passed within four hundred thousand miles of Earth—missing us by only six hours. To us, numbers like four hundred thousand seem vast, but in terms of space travel that’s basically like being in Earth’s pocket, and while missing something by six hours may seem like a lot to you, in astronomical terms that’s practically already inside of you: easing just the tip of its disaster member in to see how you like it before the full-fledged catastrophic shafting begins.

But even if it hadn’t missed us, Earth’s atmosphere typically protects us from a good deal of the debris that space is constantly trying to murder everybody with, and when a meteor enters the atmosphere it usually results in little more than a pleasant shooting star. Wishes are made, boys become real, and everybody learns a little lesson about love, right? Well, those dramatic shooting stars typically come from objects no bigger than a grain of sand, and if a grain of sand can light up the night sky—while simultaneously giving life to the hopes and dreams of optimistic children throughout the world—you can probably imagine what might happen when something a thousand feet across comes barreling through the atmosphere. (Hint: It ain’t granting wishes. Unless you’re wishing for a painful and fiery death.)

The Best Wish to Make upon a Falling Star

“I wish that was not a meteor about to kill everybody I love.”

If that asteroid does enter Earth’s atmosphere, a variety of things can go down, depending on its specific construction. The heavier bodies, like iron-laden rocks, are the ones most likely to actually impact the planet. That impact would throw up insane amounts of debris, release levels of destruction akin to several nuclear bombs, and leave a permanent terrain-changing impact crater for thousands of years. The more loosely constructed dust and ice asteroids, however, can’t always take the increased pressure from Earth’s atmosphere, and usually explode before impacting. That kind of sounds like the preferred scenario between the two: If it doesn’t hit, that’s like we’re getting off light, right? Not really. An object detonating in the air can actually do quite a bit more damage than a physical impact. The asteroid that missed us by a blink of an eye, for example, was a loosely constructed object; if it had entered our atmosphere, it would have detonated with a strength estimated at seven to eight hundred megatons. That’s about fifteen times the strength of the largest nuclear blast ever recorded! With that in mind, it’s probably safe to say that if a medium- to large-sized asteroid ever does make it through the atmosphere, we’re all pretty well fucked, because our best-case scenario in that situation is for the meteor to hit us so hard that it changes the very Earth itself. It gets a little hard to be optimistic when that kind of destruction is the most you can hope for. But if you think you can still see a bright side in all of this, be careful; it could just be a blinding flash from the largest explosion in history.

Unfortunately, if an asteroid is on a direct collision course with Earth, that very fact makes it less likely we’ll be able to see it until it’s far too late. Typically, we track asteroids by virtue of their movement parallel to us. But when they’re coming right for us, we can’t see them moving. They just look like beautiful, harmless specks of light. But even more worrisome are the asteroids already inside Earth’s orbital path—the ones whose path the Earth is intersecting with regularly, the ones closest to us, the ones most likely to hit; we can’t see those asteroids because they’re so close to us that they’re backlit by the sun. Remember the old campfire horror story about the babysitter trying to trace the threatening phone calls she’s been receiving? Well, that babysitter is us, and that serial killer is the asteroids, and good lord! I—I hate to break it to you, but … those phone calls are coming from inside the house.

Things You’ll Have Time to Say Between Noticing an Incoming Meteor and Death

· “I alw—”

· “Get u—”

· “Oh go—”

· “Whatthefuckisthat?”

To give us a better shot at avoiding secret, invisible, flaming space death, a team of researchers in Canada is launching a small satellite telescope to help us spot these near-orbit asteroids better, but it’s a low-budget venture and it could do only so much. And while something is always better than nothing, keep in mind that there are more than five thousand asteroids dangerously close to Earth that have already been discovered using just our meager existing technology—it’s kind of hard to get stoked about the mere possibility of the potential to maybe spot a few more. Launching a satellite to slightly extend our sight range is like wearing a bulletproof vest when more than five thousand guns are pointing at you—yes, a few of those bullets are gonna be stopped, but any way you cut it, somebody’s winding up as meat Jell-O in this situation, and we’re a planet-sized target.

But hey, don’t worry, the government is totally on this one: A more official (well, more official than Canada anyway) approach is already under way. The U.S. Congress has introduced the NEO Preparedness Act, a bill mandating that we create a special program called the Office of Potentially Hazardous Near-Earth Object Preparedness, which would develop the technology to track 90 percent of all near-earth objects (NEOs), even those as small as 140 meters, by the year 2020. You better believe NASA’s on that shit too; they’ve decided that we would need a much larger version of Canada’s tracking satellite in place, preferably near Venus’s orbit, to achieve this Congress-mandated goal. Unfortunately, it would cost about 1.1 billion dollars for fifteen years of operation, and that’s just not in NASA’s budget. Also unfortunately, Congress is far too busy asking if baseball players are really as strong as they seem and trying to choke bankers with wads of cash to grant more funds to such trifling matters as the avoidance of space bullets, so they won’t give NASA the money. NASA scientists have stated that they intend to get to work on pursuing other, less costly plans, but seeing as how Congress is probably scheduling appointments to review whether wrestling is real and appointing a committee to decide exactly how awesome the last season of LOST is going to be, NASA probably shouldn’t hold their breath on this whole “averting Armageddon” thing.

But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The last one of these asteroids to initiate an extinction-level event was more than 65 million ago, so how present is this danger, really?

Well, in 1908 we had a little practice drill for an ELE when a chunk of rock half the size of a football stadium exploded over Siberia, initiating a blast with the strength of about fifteen megatons—roughly one thousand times the strength of the bomb that fell on Hiroshima. With temperatures reaching 5,000 degrees, the impact destroyed two thousand square kilometers of forest—literally laying the trees out flat on their sides in enormous radial circles like a satanic Spirograph.

One witness, stationed at a local trading post, described what he saw:

Suddenly in the north sky … the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire. … At that moment there was a bang in the sky and a mighty crash. … The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or of guns firing. The earth trembled.

This man witnessed an event so traumatic that he could only speak in biblical terms afterward.

It was ominously phrased prophecies of doom delivered by traumatized, grizzled old Russians like that that spurred interest in the NEO Preparedness Office, which would not only track future potential meteor impacts through orbital telescopes, but is intended to help research and fund a plethora of solutions. Apparently operating under the Kitchen Sink philosophy of panicking and throwing everything we have at any potential threat, NASA proposes to use everything from “gravity tractors” to “a shit-ton of nuclear missiles” to deter impacts. That gravity tractor idea sounds pretty crazy, but really it’s just a plan to send a spaceship to tow the asteroid away. Some other proposed solutions, like firing a solar laser at it, or wrapping it entirely in plastic like a planetary Hot Pocket, are far more bizarre. The most practical solution on the table is that aforementioned nuclear blast, but there’s a major problem that prevents us from even nuking the damn thing: Blasting an asteroid apart preimpact could just fragment it into thousands of smaller but still Earth-impacting meteoroids. So now instead of a punch to the face, we’ve turned it into a shotgun blast. A nuclear shotgun blast aimed right at us. And that’s our best option!

Brainstorming Notes on How to Repel Incoming Meteor Strikes from NASA NEO Meeting

· Blow the fucking thing up.

· Divert it.

· Like, push the Earth out of the way somehow?

· Last idea is stupid. How can you push a planet?

· Bigger gravity tractor.

· Invent Hulk, have Hulk punch.

· Ask Jesus.

But one possible solution to this problem is the concept of nuclear pulse propulsion—essentially, using nuclear blasts as a kind of engine to push the meteor away from us without damaging it. They want to use nuclear explosions as the fuel in a gargantuan space engine that they’ll attach to an incoming planet-killing asteroid. So really, if you can gauge the level of a threat based on the truly, epically insane lengths people are willing to go to prevent it, then you should probably start burrowing underground and asking every woman you see if she’d like to repopulate the Earth with you, because the only thing crazier than the plot of a Bruce Willis movie coming to life and ending the planet is the psychotic ways the government is trying to stop it.

And even if nature, fate, and God don’t conspire to seal our fates with a giant rock kiss, we just might do it ourselves. Carl Sagan, in his book Pale Blue Dot, reasoned that any method capable of turning meteors away from Earth could ultimately be just as effective at rerouting otherwise harmless asteroids toward us. Sagan thought that since political leaders are all basically batshit insane, Earth will be at greater risk from a man-made impact than from anything naturally occurring. So he believed that by introducing ideas meant to avert disaster, we would actually give the bad guys some ideas to invite that same disaster. As if to prove his point, the Soviet Union read his theories and immediately set about work on Project: Ivan’s Hammer, a military operation whose sole purpose was the complete weaponization of space by steering incoming asteroids toward specific global targets. Sagan was immediately struck dead by the irony. May he rest in peace, though he’s far more likely spinning in his grave.

So even if the randomness of space doesn’t kill us, there are people on Earth more than willing to take up the slack? I guess it’s really only a matter of time before it happens. It could be any minute … it could happen … right … now! Ah, just kidding.

You’ve got until 2029.

Oh, I’m sorry, what? You didn’t know? That’s when the next one might hit. It’s named Apophis, and it’s very excited to meet you. It would shake your hand, but it prefers to say hello more the old-fashioned way: with explosions. But after that, shall we say, warm welcome, the conversation might turn chilly when the impact winter sets in! That is, assuming you don’t die from awesome pun overload first … ahem. So anyway, Apophis is expected to pass dangerously close to the Earth in early 2029—closer even than our own geosynchronous satellites! And though leading scientists say it’s unlikely to hit based on their projections, with a probability of only about 1 in 45,000, they also mention that their projections at this point are “not an exact science,” which, when you think about it, is a pretty shitty thing to hear from an astrophysicist. Add the fact that these trajectories are easily influenced by any and all outside force—from planetary pull to space junk (you know, like those geosynchronous satellites it will be passing straight through)—and it’s still somewhat unlikely that Apophis will hit in 2029. But any alteration of its course resulting from those satellite impacts could result in it hitting the Earth the next time it comes around … in 2036.

Events with a Probability of About 1 in 45,000

· Stubbing both toes in the same day on the same thing.

· Finding a $20 bill on the street.

· Winning fifth prize on Scratch-it.

· All life on Earth being blown to holy shit by an asteroid twenty years from now.

Apophis isn’t going to be an asteroid one-night stand, scaring you just the one time and disappearing forever. No, this is more like an asteroid relationship, and my friends, I’m sorry to say that it is a dysfunctional one. If you’re the kind of person who likes to look on the upside, though, you could think of it this way: It’s like a bonus! You looked in the box expecting only one, but now you’ve got two free, heaping scoops of explosive death in every box of your terror flakes. There’s also a supersecret prize inside. (Hint: It’s more explosions.)