As if we haven’t had enough to worry about during the past six months, just prior to Election Day, an asteroid will pass dangerously close to earth.
Asteroid 2018VP1 is projected to come near the planet on Nov. 2, according to the Center for Near Earth Objects Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsions Laboratory. At first, I wasn’t too concerned about this report. It wasn’t like these guys breaking the news were rocket scientists. And then it occurred to me that these guys breaking the news were, indeed, rocket scientists. And I started to worry.
NASA has downplayed the odds of the asteroid posing any danger to humans, putting the chance of the 7-foot mass reaching the earth at 0.41%. I Googled “What does 0.41% chance mean” and the answer contained so much math I pulled a brain muscle. The best I can tell, a O.041% chance represents very low odds.
Before you fluff up your pillow and prepare for a sound sleep, I would like to inform you that, while asteroid 2018VP1 may miss us, there are many other asteroids that won’t. Every year, the earth is hit by approximately 6,100 meteors large enough to reach the ground.
Most of these hunks fall unnoticed in uninhabited locations but several times a year, a few land in populated areas and garner more attention. In 1996, one landed in Hollywood, assumed the name of Dwayne Johnson, and began a career in the entertainment industry.
The sheer magnitude of meteorites should get your attention. When weathermen describe hailstorms, they use sports terms comparing freezing ice to the size of golf balls and occasionally baseballs — objects where a helmet might save your noggin from getting dented. When scientists discuss meteorites that crash into Earth, they use transportation terms comparing them in size to mini-vans, buses and train cars. There is no headgear known to man which will protect your gray matter from these colossal clumps of rock.
While reading about meteors entering the atmosphere, I discovered two things: First, the concept is terrifying, and second, the concept is terrifying. Scientists try their best to alleviate our fears.
Tulane University professor Stephen Nelson has calculated the odds of getting killed by a meteorite at about 1 in 250,000. According to Dr. Nelson’s statistics, murder (1 in 185), tornado (1 in 60,000), flood (1 in 27,000), and airplane crash (1 in 30,000) are much more likely killers. By comparison, the chances of getting struck by lightning is 1 in 700,000, and the chances of winning the Powerball lottery are 1 in more than 195 million. Dr. Nelson does not provide the odds for getting struck by lightning while purchasing a lottery ticket, but that’s a topic for another day.
As you might imagine based on Dr. Nelson’s calculations, there have been very few documented cases of humans being hit by meteorites. On Nov. 30, 1954, in Oak Grove, Alabama, a 15-pound meteorite did crash through the roof of a farmhouse and strike Ann Hodges on the couch. (Actually, the meteorite struck Ms. Hodges on the hip; the couch escaped unscathed.)
The low number of meteorites landing in populated areas may lull you into a false sense of safety. However, I would advise you not to put away your Chicken Little costume yet. There is another danger falling from the sky on a regular basis: man-made space junk.
The Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris studies reports that 50 to 200 large pieces of man-made space debris from satellites and rocket parts return to earth every year. Despite numerous incidents of humans spontaneously combusting or inexplicably being flattened, to date, there is only one documented account of a person being hit by space debris. Lottie Williams, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was struck on the shoulder in 1997 by a discarded piece of a Delta rocket.
Recently, space junk has been increasing and getting larger. In May of this year, an 18-ton Chinese rocket passed over New York City before falling into the Atlantic Ocean. To put 18 tons hurtling towards us into perspective, this would be like 1,000 35-pound bags of cat litter lashed together crashing to the ground; or a car carrier loaded with 12 Toyota Corollas smashing into Earth; or three full-sized African elephants locking trunks and tails dropping from above. You get the idea.
“For a large object like this, dense pieces like parts of the rocket engines could survive reentry and crash to Earth,” said Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Once they reach the lower atmosphere they are traveling relatively slowly, so worst case is they could take out a house.”
Oh, is that all? What a delightful, worry-free thought. And now if you will excuse me, I think I am going to retreat to the safety of my underground bunker.
Mark S. Albury lives in Northfield Falls.