A Reminder of How Fragile We Are

PERSPECTIVES


Op-Ed by PETER MAURER

Many of us witnessed, heard, or felt the meteorite that exploded overhead last Tuesday evening. It is one of those rare events, this one celestial in nature, that will make us remember exactly where we were when it happened.

Social media lit up like a proverbial skyrocket within minutes of this event, both a testament to the power of being interconnected to that degree, and also a concern that many of us are glued to our phones or devices to an unhealthy degree.

Be that as it may, this was one cool event, one that many will tell their children and grandchildren about in years to come. Mother Nature has obviously decided that in addition to snow, ice, and brutal cold so far this winter season, let’s go ahead and toss in a fireball, sonic boom, and minor earthquake to remind us who is in charge.

I can still remember being a young boy back in December of 1965, sitting at our dinner table next to the bay window in the kitchen. Against a rapidly-darkening sky, I plainly saw a bright streak of light moving across the sky. I called out a couple of times to my family, but they ignored me, intent on some other discussion. Daydreaming out the window was a specialty of mine, but it paid off that December 9th.

The streak went across the sky, west to east, and after a few seconds exploded with a light so bright, our backyard and neighborhood temporarily looked like high noon. The light was intensely white, almost blue, and faded as quickly as a camera flash.

Everyone stopped eating and looked at me. Suddenly, they realized I had seen what they had missed, and for a few minutes, dinner came to a standstill as we pondered what we had witnessed.

Of course, back in the 1960s, it was the height of the Cold War, so people were terrified that we had just witnessed some incoming Russian nuclear missile. News outlets, especially in mid-Michigan Saginaw, were slow to report.

It took until the 11:00 news before we found out that it was a meteorite rather than an ICBM with ‘Doomsday’ written on the side in Cyrillic letters.

However interesting and glorious meteoritic displays are, they are a reminder of just how brutal and unforgiving the Universe can be. The average ‘shooting star’ is the size of a pencil eraser, and the one from last week was likely a foot or less wide.

The intense burst of light and sonic boom result from the sheer speed of these space rocks, hitting our atmosphere at speeds approaching 60,000 miles per hour. At those speeds, the friction generated when the rock hits the lower atmosphere is converted into light, sound, and a compression wave, otherwise known as a ‘sonic boom’.

Of course, we were never in real danger. It’s only when a meteor/comet/asteroid approaches the size of a football field or larger do we need to worry about a significant impact event. Between the melting of the Earth’s crust at the impact site, and the resulting debris in the atmosphere cooling us off and affecting climate and food production, large impacts threaten our civilization in a very real sense.

But large impacts are relatively rare; what wiped out the dinosaurs was an outlier in what is otherwise a wide assortment of space junk plowing into us on a fairly regular basis. But even so, NASA is busy cataloging and monitoring the immense number of near-Earth asteroids, many of which are large enough to cause extinction-level events.

It is only by the grace of God that we have not had a significant impact in many millennia, but know that there is a space rock out there with our name on it, and despite science’s best attempts to keep track of as many as possible, there are many rogue space objects that we don’t know about.

And if one of those rocks wallop us before we develop the technology to steer them out of our orbit, life as we know it will change.