Let us prepare for impact.
May 7, 2001 2:46 PM   Subscribe

Let us prepare for impact. A group of scientists is working on a standardized protocol for dealing with the possibility of a comet or massive asteroid striking the Earth, saying humans can do more than the dinosaurs ever could before a colossal impact precipitated their extinction 65 millions years ago.
"We have now overcome the giggle factor."
I don't know if we have........
posted by nonharmful (24 comments total)
ok, i may be paranoid here, but could this be a conspiracy to rev. up interest in the topic before Ben Affleck's next movie comes out?

(two side conversations here: a) why does imdb show superstar's pictures but charge for minor stars to show theirs? b) not to diminish their sacrifice, but is anyone else a little tired of the "greatest generation thing"? just curious)
posted by elsar at 3:03 PM on May 7, 2001

"We have now overcome the giggle factor."

I have to say that I was unaware of the giggle factor when it came to NEOs. Unless it's a crucial part of the mathematical calculations used to determine the likelihood of a collision occurring.

Prof Binzel: "Well, Jeez. We'd love to work out the probability of a comet hitting Earth but the giggle factor is fluctuating too randomly to predict. Oh wait, no, I've got it."
posted by MUD at 3:09 PM on May 7, 2001

elsar, I'm a little tired of the greatest generation thing as well. I think they would be more deserving of the title had they 1) Done something to advance civil rights for their minority counterparts that served right along with them. Had they done that, I feel we wouldn't have near the amount of race problems that we have today.
2)Helped out the Native Americans in some way.
I just feel that there was so much momentum back then that as a country we could have cleared these hurdles long ago.
posted by keithl at 3:22 PM on May 7, 2001

"The greatest generation" thing bothers the hell out of me too, it sort of says "f-u you all, you'll never accomplish diddly - we blew up Japan for chrissake!"
posted by owillis at 4:03 PM on May 7, 2001

This is a very interesting subject but it's scary as it puts us into a Dr. Strangelove scenario. If the collision can't be avoided then the richer countries might develop a system to protect their citizens. Whether these are caves where we can live with limited capacity or an American diversion to the Indian Ocean where we are safe. Oh well, I'll probably be dead by the time anything gets here, so who cares.
posted by wsfinkel at 4:19 PM on May 7, 2001

I'm sure it's not a coincidence that the first time I heard a lot of talk about needing to do something about comets hitting earth was right after the first star wars program was given up for dead.
posted by rdr at 5:10 PM on May 7, 2001

Uh, elsar, please to not hijack the discussion threads. In three different directions, no less ...

As far as I'm concerned, there are two ways to look stupid: looking stupid by planning for something that never happened ... or looking stupid by being the first generation of intelligent life on the planet that had the capability to do something about an impact, and doing nothing. We could have doomsday, ye olde planet-killer (and keep in mind that Armageddon was vastly exaggerated: there are no asteroids "the size of Texas", and in fact all it would take it one the size of Manhattan to give the entire planet a Very Bad Day), or simply a major impact on the order of Tunguska in the wrong place -- say, the ocean. With 2/3 of the planet water, we have to assume the odds are high that any impact would indeed lead to massive tidal waves that could, say, devastate every single city along the Pacific basin.

Hiding in caves is a very unlikely scenario, but having 6 billion people and severely curtailed global agricultural capacity due to decades of atmospheric dust is a very realistic and very disturbing one.

In any event, I think it's reasonable to start wheels turning so that we have choices should a one-in-60,000 chance turn up for us in the next year or twenty. What could we realistically do? Is a diversionary bomb even technically feasible? If so, what do we need to have in place in order to build it and make it work?

rdr, that may be what YOU heard, but the real reason this is an increased concern among planetary scientists is the discovery of the Kuiper belt objects: trans-Neptunian asteroids and comets that are more numerous than ever estimated. We're finding dozens of pretty big ones every year since the early 90s, and it's led to the whole is-Pluto-a-planet debate. Previous solar system cosmology pretty much assumed that the loose objects were largely scooped up or disturbed into solar capture or solar escape orbits by all those darn planets, the asteroid belt being a notable exception; modern cosmology believes that our solar system isn't nearly as cleaned out as we thought, and all sorts of events -- e.g. the distant and imperceptibly slow passing of a nearby star -- might jar deep-sky objects into falling toward the Sun and us.
posted by dhartung at 5:21 PM on May 7, 2001

Hasn't this situation always existed? Why are we so concerned about big rocks hitting Earth now? Just cuz we can see them coming? A big cataclysm of such magnitude hasn't happened since the dinosaurs roamed the Earth and we fear we're overdue? This just sounds like a complicated revisit of Chicken Little or the man from Qi. Or maybe someone's fishing to get Ben Affleck a sequel to Armageddon.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:22 PM on May 7, 2001

That's a very naive statement Zach. Geologic studies have shown that earth receives a major impact between every 60-100 millions years (I believe don't quote me). At any rate when we do discover one we should have a significant amount of time to prepare, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't prepare to prepare.
posted by wsfinkel at 5:30 PM on May 7, 2001

Okay, I know this is off-topic, but I have to respond to some of the comments that were made earlier in this thread. Please bear with me:

Tired of the "Greatest Generation" thing, are you? Good. Do something greater. Until we, as a generation, do something that can in any way be compared to what the WWII generation accomplished, they ARE the greatest generation.

They were not perfect. But they were faced with mind-boggling challenges, and they rose to most of those challenges admirably. They knew pain, sacrifice, and selflessness in ways that most of us, thankfully, never will.

Put yourself in the shoes of an 18 year old soldier. Standing at a bus station, hugging your crying mother. You are about to leave home for the first time in your life, and there is a very good chance that you will not return. Ever. You know this because many of the boys that you grew up with have died shortly after getting on a bus quite like this one. Their faces flash through your mind, and your legs get a little rubbery, despite the brave front that you're putting on for Mom. You reassure her that everything will be alright, and you board the bus, resigned to your fate.

That's just one scenario. Call it the Iowa Farmboy scenario. There were hundreds of thousands like him. Picture all of those brave people who huddled in darkened basements every night for a year during the London Blitz. Trying to comfort terrified, screaming, children, as 1000lb bombs and V-1 rockets leveled entire city blocks, and shook the walls of houses for miles around. What do you tell a kid in a situation like that? Do you say"It's gonna be okay, love?" and hope that the next bomb doesn't make a liar out of you?

These are just images off of the top of my head. There are literally millions similar stories, on all sides of this tragic conflict. Substitute Berlin for London in the above paragraph. Or Okinawa for Iowa. It's all the same. Did the German or Japanese or Italian wives weep less because their husbands and sons died in the service of evil men? Of course not.

Sorry this is so long, but it is a sensitive issue with me. We look at them now, old and broken down, and roll our eyes at their rambling war stories, and crotchety grumbling about the current state of the world. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Next time you hear an old man or woman tell a story about those horrible days, you listen up, and you thank them will all of your heart. They suffered greatly so that we would have to suffer less. That is the greatest thing one person can possibly do for another. That is also the greatest thing a generation can possibly do for another.
posted by Optamystic at 6:22 PM on May 7, 2001

Sorry Optamystic, I don't buy it. They did their best to get through a bad situation as well as they could, the same as would happen now, and has happened countless times in the past. The only difference is that we don't have any situation as bad. Should we judge greatness by how much a person had to cope with? I don't think so. If there were a WWII type situation right now, we would be the generation dealing with it, and it would be dealt with. Not that we would do any better, or faster, or have an easier time of it, but neither would we likely do worse, be slower, or have a harder time of it.
posted by Nothing at 7:11 PM on May 7, 2001

apologies to everyone for the hijacking.
optamystic, I wasn't belittling "their" contributions. I was questioning the label "The greatest."
Nothing, great point.
posted by keithl at 7:26 PM on May 7, 2001

Great. I don't have have enough to worry about. It's bad enough that just about everything will give you cancer, now I have to worry about a huge space rock killing off the species. I much prefer an Omega Man, Soilent Green or Planet of the Apes scenario for the decline of mankind.

Long live Chuck Heston. I'm sure that he and his right-wing supporters will find a way to funnel billions and billions of taxpayer dollars into an inept "comet" defense shield.
posted by mrBMsandwich at 7:48 PM on May 7, 2001

Not that I necessarily agree with the title of "Greatest Generation," but I disagree with your premise, Nothing.
"Should we judge greatness by how much a person had to cope with?"
In some ways, we have to. Had Abraham Lincoln been president during the 1970's, I'm not sure we'd have such a heroic image of him. If Martin Luther King Jr. had been born yesterday, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't go down in history as a great man.
Chance plays a hand in making great people. The rest of us just have potential.
posted by Doug at 8:01 PM on May 7, 2001

WWII talk here...
posted by owillis at 8:15 PM on May 7, 2001

To quote from NOVA:

PETER THOMAS: A program known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, would have set up an elaborate missile defense system. It would be built around satellites in space, armed with interceptor rockets that would track down and destroy nuclear warheads. The program was nicknamed "Star Wars." But the cold war was almost over, and the need for such a futuristic, expensive project was called into question.
VICTOR CLUBE: This has created the situation where the SDI no longer needs to exist, and I suspect this has been somewhat of an embarrassment to the SDI, and inevitably, they were bound to look for a way of preserving themselves.
PETER THOMAS: With sharp cuts in the military budget, weapons designers wondered if they could apply their skills to a related problem, saving the earth from an asteroid impact. But, is such a feat even possible?

I'm not saying that there's no danger and that we shouldn't be thinking about this but some some of the impact people seem to have a political agenda. Just to throw in a little guilt by association take note of proposal by the original Dr. Strangelove (Edward Teller) to build a hydrogen bomb shield in that last article.
posted by rdr at 8:52 PM on May 7, 2001

RE: frequency of impacts

Opinions differ on how often catastrophic impacts occur, but I believe 29 million years is still the magic number in relation to mass extinctions.

As for the silly movie asteroid that was the size of Texas, it is believed that the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs could have been the six-mile asteroid that created the Yucatan crater. Or maybe that is known as fact now, I can't keep up. Frightening.
posted by bargle at 9:29 PM on May 7, 2001

mass extinctions have been detected at about 22-28 million year intervals, pretty far back.

it's believed there were two very large (between 6 and 20 miles across) comets that impacted the earth around 65 million years ago. one is thought to have hit at the tip of the yucatan peninsula, creating the chixulub crater, and another somewhere in the arabian sea, near bombay i guess.

uh, didn't shoemaker-levy smack into jupiter just a few years back? it's a good thing we've got the gas giants out there to suck in lots of the random crap that floats (rockets) through this solar system.

my favorite NEO-orgin theory is the Nemesis theory. dark star, oort cloud...*shiver* so much fun! if it were orbiting this solar system way out near the oort cloud, 22-28 million years sounds like a convenient period.

to go on and on, i've heard talk out and around about how hard it is to check up on any bulky objects on a trajectory with us because of all the crap we've dumped into space. sure, it's not the hudson, but we've left a lot out there. hmmm...tang canister or deadly comet?
posted by carsonb at 3:35 AM on May 8, 2001

All we need are a bunch of renegade devil-may-care oil drillers with a can-do attitude to fly out there and blow them suckers apart.

(sorry, I just saw Armageddon for the first time)
posted by mecran01 at 6:20 AM on May 8, 2001

dhartung, thanks for the light you shed, but let me amplify on rdr's point a little. The scientists who get news coverage are the ones who get funding. And gee, if we'll need all this expensive spaced-based technology anyway for asteroid defence, maybe we can cheaply repurpose it to missile defense, and still be saving the world from asteroids, which solves both a fiscal and a political problem with the current NMD situation. Couldn't this be the logic behind some of this funding?
posted by anewc2 at 7:09 AM on May 8, 2001

Fine, just tell me where the SDI funding is in this resume of the chief scientist in the cited study. I won't deny that the space weapons crowd sees an opportunity, but there has been a real change in the appreciation of the risk. In the 1970s, the Alvarez cometary-extinction theory was considered vaguely crackpot; it's now widely accepted (though also disputed, to be sure). In the 1990s we had the TNO discoveries, and probably most important, Shoemaker-Levy hitting Jupiter. A marriage of geology and astronomy has identified many terrestrial impact craters besides Winslow. None of that had anything to do with SDI.

Don't let your opposition to space weapons blind you. The science is legitimate: this is a bigger problem than we thought. Nobody's talking about building anything yet anyway, just looking at strategies. As I said, it's not that anybody thinks this really will happen; it's just that we've reached the point where we can realistically do something about it, so it would be really dumb to pass on the opportunity.
posted by dhartung at 9:17 AM on May 8, 2001

And remember, if we do get hit, it will not be any fun at all.
posted by baylink at 1:53 PM on May 8, 2001

For the sake of discussion let's say that the chances of me dying as a result of asteroid impact are one in a million. Let's say, generously, that I have fifty more years to live, that any major impact will result in my death, and that major impacts occur every fifty million years. I'm fudging the impact frequency just because one in a million reads a lot better than one in five hundred thousand. I'm willing to take a one in a million risk. I'm not willing to put a dime in tax money into mitigating that risk. Riding my bicycle without a helmet is far riskier. Although I think of myself as a likable guy the chance that someone I know will kill me is a lot higher. Even the probability that atheist, communist, homeless people without health insurance will rise up in revolution and kill me is a lot higher. In the end I believe that any attempt to militarize space is far riskier to me. Plus, I would have to pay money to be put at risk.

I agree with you that impacts are a real risk and that talking about what to do about impacts and setting up a monitoring system make sense. I just don't think that it's possible to leave it at that. I live in a country that sunk huge amounts of money into SDI not because anyone with half a brain believed that star wars could possibly work but because most people really wanted to believe that must be something that would protect them from nuclear annihilation. How will people react when you tell them that there's a chance an errant asteroid will kill them? They'll want to do something about it and there are plenty of people that will have an interest in telling that the thing they should is some sort of active techy fix. To me it make a lot more sense to monitor space, buy ourselves a few decades warning, and react when a threat actually presents itself. I doubt that such a passive approach will satisfy our deep need to feel that science can make the world predictable and risk free.

So that's my analysis of the risk to me personally. What about society as a whole? It's going to sound misanthropic but to me it's an open question whether earth is better off without six billion people. In any case asteroid impact or not we, our language, our culture, and everything we build will all be completely forgotten in a million years. Maybe what we humans should do is to collectively create some spectacular work of engineering/art that will survive a million years. Right now I'm going to go engage in the fun but slightly risky sport of surfing.
posted by rdr at 2:13 PM on May 8, 2001

Maybe what we humans should do is to collectively create some spectacular work of engineering/art that will survive a million years.

We need to carve 'Humans' into the side of the moon, a la Chairface Chippendale.
posted by sonofsamiam at 3:29 PM on May 8, 2001

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