Posted by: sweeneyblog | July 1, 2014

The Stellar Junkie: Space Debris Provides Very Real Threat

Local astronomer Jeff Hoffmeister has volunteered to send us a few pieces when there is something truly unique and remarkable to observe in the night sky. So bundle up and gaze into the stars with the Stellar Junkie.

Jeff Hoffmeister

Jeff Hoffmeister is The Stellar Junkie

There has been, and still is, a vast variety of creatures on this great Earth, from the smallest microbe to the largest of mammals. Many are unique in their abilities to survive. Some have even survived for millions upon millions of years. With all these life forms, only one has been present more recently that has the intellect to survive by creating tools, not only to survive but to learn about the world and the space that surrounds them. We call ourselves humans.

Our creations have made quite an impact throughout our existence here on this planet, whether for the greater good or destructive for all living things. We try to learn from our mistakes and we try to repeat that which has the better outcome. As we all continue to try to understand each other, the natural processes that have taken place on this Earth and in the rest of the solar system continue as they have for over 4.5 billion years despite all the human battles, famine, plagues, and political upheavals that are part of our existence. All this can be gone in an instant.

Comets and asteroids are by far the most numerous leftover rubble from the formation of the solar system. Many wander from the outermost reaches of the Oort Cloud and many travel as far as the region inside Earth’s orbit. In the early days of our solar system, these objects were more abundant and, due to their collisions, would conglomerate into planets. These collisions happen much less often now because of less material. However, we cannot ignore the fact that these collision still do occur.

Earth gets pelted by 100 to 250 tons of natural space debris every day, most of which is not much bigger than a grain of sand. Earth’s atmosphere is hit by objects the size of a basketball once a month; an object 150 feet across hits once per century, such as the object that created Meter Crater in Arizona. An object one mile across hits about every 500,000 years. 65 million years ago, an object 6 miles across hit the Yucatan Peninsula causing the extinction of the dinosaurs and most life on Earth. We have our big brother Jupiter to thank for grabbing many of these objects in its gravitational pull; objects that may have made it to Earth and caused these occurrences to happen more frequently.

Space is enormous and the chance of Earth being impacted by a large object is minimal. However, the chance still exists, we cannot ignore this fact. Earth will be hit again. As of late June 2014, there have been 1485 potentially hazardous asteroids discovered. At this point, we believe astronomers have discovered about 95% of the Near Earth Asteroids (NEA) over .5 miles across; about 30% of those are 330 ft. across; 2% of the NEA are 130 ft. across. A 150 ft. asteroid may seem small but, considering one about that size created Meteor Crater, we should still consider it a threat.



An impactor 330 ft. across would wipe out an area the size of Colorado. Just between June 16 and August 17, 2014, 11 known asteroids will pass within 60 lunar distances of Earth (one lunar distance is about 239,000 miles) with some passing inside the moon’s orbit. On June 22nd, an asteroid over 50 ft. across passed inside the lunar orbit. Many objects aren’t even seen until they pass, either because they come from the direction of the Sun or the asteroid is made up of a dark material that does not reflect much light.

There are hundreds of amateur astronomers like myself around the world that search the skies. Sometimes we will observe an object that should not be there. Many known asteroids and comets have been found by amateur Astronomers. World-wide, there are about as many professional astronomers looking for NEA as there are people working in a fast food restaurant, so assistance from amateur astronomers is important. We cannot ignore all these facts. Funding is needed to create more large professional-sized telescopes to help aid in the search for NEA, and to send more unmanned probes to learn about these objects.

It is true that money for these projects is hard to come by and there are many other responsibilities here on Earth that require financing. If we don’t take this situation more seriously however,  nothing else we do will make any difference if we get impacted by an asteroid or comet. We have the intellect to learn and understand how to survive in this universe as long as we do not turn our backs on the things that can take it all away in a flash.


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