It killed the dinosaurs, and according to many theorists these days, it may be the most likely end to humanity’s reign on Earth just as well. Yes, we’re talking about an asteroid impact, and yes, it seems that we’re all just sitting ducks… at least according to many mainstream interpretations of the so-called space-rock-apocalypse.
The headlines, if they are to be believed, say it all: among the overtly-sensational headlines, one carried by Vox over the weekend read, “An Asteroid Just Missed Earth. We Won’t Always Be So Lucky.” Elsewhere, the SFGate covered the same story of this past weekend’s asteroid “near miss,” under the similar title, “Close Call With Asteroid Over the Weekend Raises Concerns.”
If these headlines were taken at face value, we might be led to think that a huge space rock had nearly crashed into Earth on Sunday; the object in question, asteroid 2014 RC was, in fact, 25,000 miles away at its very nearest, meaning it would never have struck our planet.
The concerns about such asteroids still may be legitimate, since the most concerning factor related to 2014 RC was the fact that it wasn’t detected until just a week prior to it’s fly-by that made headlines. Also, to put things in perspective, an object passing within 25,000 miles of Earth is roughly the same distance away as three of our planets placed side-by-side (please keep in mind that in the graphic below, the size of the asteroid is greatly exaggerated, purely for sake of illustration):
Elsewhere, the headlines pertaining to space rocks are even more ridiculous, evoking fantastic themes more akin to things we’d expect to see in sci-fi films and the like, as with this headline carried by the Mirror: “Meteor-fright: UFO mystery as ‘flaming space rock’ falling from sky is feared to be alien craft.” In other words, as if asteroids weren’t enough to be worried about, now we have alien spacefaring vessels to worry about, too.
In truth, it is believed that meteorites hit not only Spain (as discussed in the story mentioned above) but also in Nicaragua over the last few days… but then again, meteors actually fall into Earth’s atmosphere by the thousands each year, many no larger than a grain of sand. Very few meteorites are large enough to make their way to earth and actually strike land before burning up completely during their flights through our atmosphere, and those that are, are generally not large enough to cause widespread damage.
And briefly, a note about the various usage of the terms “meteor,” “meteorite,” and “asteroid,” which seem to be variously interchangeable in the minds of many mainstream writers: a meteorite is an object that originates in space, and actually survives atmospheric entry and the subsequent impact with Earth, whereas a meteor is an object that burns away completely as it enters or grazes our atmosphere (in the latter case, some meteors may even enter Earth’s atmosphere at such an angle that they burn while passing through, and manage to leave again, and though a bit worse for the wear, they’re still intact). Finally, an asteroid is a space rock large enough to be considered a minor planetary body themselves, such as the once-planetary Pluto, which was controversially downgraded to minor-planet status in 2006.
I’m not the only individual weighing in on the apparent belief in an “asteroidocalypse”. Philip Plait of Astronomy Magazine, writing for Slate (and famous in UFO circles for writing about how easily various phenomena can be misconstrued as being spacecraft or other anomalies in a March 2013 article on the subject) noted the following of potentially dangerous asteroid impacts such as these, and various writers and their tendencies to use fear-mongering to generate clicks:
“When it comes to things like asteroid impacts, your best bet is to check with JPL, or — ahem — here. If an asteroid has a decent chance of hitting us, I’d write about it… after getting confirmation and as many facts as I could from people who actually understand asteroid science.”
In fairness, most writers on this subject generally aren’t up to speed on asteroid science, and hence, it’s easy to generate traffic by creating a frenzy around how lucky (or unlucky) we may be with any such near miss. In truth, the last time a space object struck the Earth and caused significant damage was just last year, with the Chelyabinsk Meteorite that crashed over the Urals in Russia. Before that, it was the Tunguska blast of 1908; that’s significant… but the last time we had something colossally earth-changing occur was something to the tune of 66 million years ago, which led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The odds of it happening with any certain frequency obviously aren’t that great, and hence, the never-ending concerns cited by writers in mainstream articles are generally aimed more at getting traffic to their sites, than on citing proper science.
For more information on this subject, you might enjoy also reading this Wikipedia list of asteroid near-earth approaches, as well as this article on an interactive map that details the expected damage in locations around the world following a killer-asteroid strike.