The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
How The World (Almost) Ended

As the VM team re-emerged from the post-Thanksgiving tryptophan-induced haze, we found yet another thing to be thankful for: the world did not end in 1883. A new paper reinterpreting old astronomical data argues that a massive comet disintegrated near Earth and its fragments passed as close as 600km from us in August of that year. Technology Review summarizes just what this could have meant:

Manterola and co end their paper by spelling out just how close Earth may have come to catastrophe that day. They point out that Bonilla observed these objects for about three and a half hours over two days. This implies an average of 131 objects per hour and a total of 3275 objects in the time between observations.

Each fragment was at least as big as the one thought to have hit Tunguska. Manterola and co end with this: “So if they had collided with Earth we would have had 3275 Tunguska events in two days, probably an extinction event.”

We’re less likely to be caught completely by surprise by these kinds of things these days, in large part due to the work of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program and Italy’s ADAS. We’re well aware, for example, that an asteroid will be passing uncomfortably close to us on February 15 of next year—much closer than the moon and closer than some of our geosynchronous satellites. And if the asteroid were on a collision course, there are some things we might try to do to avert catastrophe, like detonating nuclear weapons nearby to try to change the asteroid’s trajectory. But something like the 1883 near-event with its thousands of projectiles may be more than we could easily handle even with adequate early warning.

So on this Black Friday, 129 years after a near-catastrophe, Via Meadia gives thanks for being alive. We really never know when it could all come to an end.

Published on November 23, 2012 12:00 pm