Deep Impact and Armageddon for Real


By Amy O'Donnell

Lighting up the Russian Sky

It was sunrise in the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia on a cold February morning in 2013 when early morning commuters were taken by surprise from a visiting UFO. At first, witnesses suspected it to be a missile. Was this an attack? After leaving a bright trail in the sky the ten-ton projectile with a downward striking angle suddenly blew up overhead. The explosion sent bystanders to their knees, and those in their cars or next to glass windows found themselves covered in shards. More than 1500 people reported medical injuries, and the total damage region-wide was estimated to be $3 million.

Astronomers were quick to jump on the case knowing that this was indeed a visitor from outer space — a meteor — the kind too large to burn up on its way through the atmosphere but small enough that rotating forces prevented it from hitting the ground.

How big was the Chelyabinsk meteor compared to the estimated gargantuan 10- kilometer object that wiped out most living things following the Cretaceous period? Scientists do not know for sure, but similar to the process of calculating how large a dinosaur-killing impact would have been, they guess roughly 20 meters in diameter. Though relatively small, this recent threat is no doubt a wakeup call for our society.

How Can We Protect Ourselves

Certainly the first step in preparing ourselves against potentially hazardous objects (PHOs) is to find them. Astronomers are looking, but now private organizations are funding exclusive searches because current programs do not have enough eyes on the sky. If an imminent impact is detected early enough we now have the technological ability to save ourselves, something our ancestors did not have.

Scientists and engineers have been tossing around ideas for decades: deflection, destruction, but probably most likely is a gravity tractor. Given enough warning, an international collaborative team could launch a rocket with a payload containing significant mass. After catching up to a PHO it would navigate beside the space rock and over time slowly manipulate the object's orbit away from an Earth impact.

Classroom Discussion

  • What could have been done for Russian residents if there was an early warning system put into place?
  • What is the difference between a PHO and a NEO (near Earth object)?