Over the past few days the world has been abuzz over the recent meteorite strike in Russia, that just happened to coincide with the close pass of Asteroid 2012 DA14. If that wasn’t enough, reports coming out of Cuba state that a similar event took place in the central part of that country. Then, reports came out of the San Francisco Bay area of a bright fireball streaking over that city! All within 2 days of each other.
With these events taking place all within a matter of days, there is a temptation to place some kind of meaning to these events. Unfortunately, many are doing so, and that only stirs up unnecessary fear. While it is hard to get a precise measurement of how much space dust and debris falls to Earth each day, some measurements suggest it could be up to 200 metric tons, while other measurements go as low as 5 metric tons/day. Either way, that is a lot of debris coming in! Most of this is literally dust sized particles left over from the formation of the Solar System. This dust burns up as it meets the atmosphere, and can be occasionally seen in the form of fast moving “shooting stars.” However, there are times when larger chunks of rock enter the atmosphere and put on a dazzling display and appear as brilliant fireballs streaking across the sky as they burn up. Then there are those that make it through, and fall all the way to the surface of the Earth. Usually we do not notice these because the chances are that they are going to fall into the ocean, or an unpopulated area.
Thursday’s event in Russia was only unusual in that it occurred over a populated area. Same with the one over Cuba, and the one over the San Francisco area. These events are not precursors to some type of Apocalypse. They are not signs pointing to the end of the world. These events have been happening, well, since the formation of the planet billions of years ago!
That being said, there is a very real danger and likelihood that Earth will be hit by a very large asteroid – one that could even end civilization. NASA is actively searching out objects of that size and believes that 90% of such objects in near Earth orbit have been found. What the event over Russia should teach us is that more needs to be done to search out these smaller rocks. 2012 DA14 was not seen until literally the last second. Funding for such searches, and developing ways to deflect such objects needs to be a priority, not just of one country, but of all countries.