Recently, a group of planetary scientists announced that they intend to save the world. However, their focus wasn’t on concerns over climate change, nor the perils of mutually assured self-destruction at the hands of nuclear devices… their concern has to do with a far less easily predictable terror: catastrophic asteroid impacts.
Perhaps most chilling of all is that the team of scientists, working together with former astronauts, warn of serious gaps in our current defensive strategies that would attempt to offset such a threat, and warn that as things currently stand, Earth “will be hit.”
Earth has a long history of run-ins with massive space rocks. The geological record shows us today not only that massive impacts with space objects have occurred, but also that mass extinctions have been associated with them, as evidenced by the extinction of dinosaurs coinciding with an asteroid impact nearly 66 million years ago. Known today as the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K–T) extinction, this event resulted in die-offs of nearly 75% of all plant and animal species existent on Earth at the time.
Enter the B612 Foundation, whose focus is assessing and planning for the eventual threat of asteroid impact. The group is comprised of former astronaut Ed Lu, along with his colleague Rusty Schweickart, as well as a number of scientists and others with relevant professional backgrounds. Danica Remy, president of the B612 organization, is also head of the organization’s Asteroid Institute program.
New Zealand Herald reports that “NASA was directed by Congress in 2005 to find 90 percent of asteroids that were at least 140m in diameter and has since determined that, of those so far observed, none pose an immediate threat.” However, only several tens of thousand asteroids are presently being tracked around Earth, while millions of others exist that aren’t presently the subject of any tracking or monitoring.
Experts say that Earth might be able to successfully deflect or break apart a significantly large asteroid with nuclear weapons, or in some cases using other systems that would include spacecraft to deflect or remove the object from Earth’s path or even a system of powerful lasers to neutralize the threat.
According to B612 President Remy, it’s not a matter of whether we’ll be hit, noting that, “It’s 100 percent certain we’ll be hit, but we’re not 100 percent certain when.”
There is some evidence that suggests a similar event may have occurred more recently, though on a far smaller scale. In 2017, a paper titled “Widespread platinum anomaly documented at the Younger Dryas onset in North American sedimentary sequences,” examined deposits where concentrations of rare-earth elements were documented along the Younger Dryas boundary, which dates to roughly 12,800 years BP. The presence of an unusual platinum spike is similar to an iridium anomaly found along the Cretaceous boundary; platinum, iridium, and certain other elements, while uncommon here on Earth, are more abundant in asteroids. Hence, the paper’s authors argue that this could indicate an extraterrestrial source for the platinum, consistent with an impact. While the impact theory of the Younger Dryas event 12,900 years BP remains controversial, the accumulation of supporting data in recent years does lend itself to the theory’s credibility.
Other notable examples in modern times include the famous Tunguska incident of 1908, where what is believed to have been a massive space rock exploded in midair over Siberia. Even without a direct impact, the resulting blast over the Siberian taiga leveled trees over an area spanning more than 750 miles, which would easily have decimated any major population center.
If what history has shown is any indication, the threat presented by asteroid impacts is all-too-real. The widespread dangers associated with such an event are justifiable grounds for raised awareness and a renewed focus, as far as how catastrophic effects associated with such an impact might be mitigated. The future of humanity–and all life on Earth–may depend on it.