The events of the past week were almost enough to make me want to renew my membership in the Flat Earth Society. I am sure I am not the only one who has been following the space stories of one near miss and one big explosion over Russia.
The near miss wasn’t even close by human standards, but did slice through our moon’s orbital path, coming closer to our planet that many orbiting communications satellites. That rock was plenty big and was being tracked by NASA for quite some time. The Russian strike was about the size of a car and no one saw that one coming, partly because of its size and mostly because it was coming from an angle that appeared to be straight from the sun. The Russian strike was a direct hit in a populated area near Chelyabinsk. It caused plenty of damage, but fortunately no loss of life.
Curiously, the recorded videos that we can view of the Russian rock were thanks to a lot of litigious drivers in that country: who knew that potential traffic lawsuits would spawn an entire industry of dashboard-mounted cameras that are filming as you travel around? It is pretty amazing photography of the sonic boom and contrails streaking across the sky.
And thanks to a quick-thinking primary school teacher who had muscle memory of our 60’s-era duck-and-cover exercises from the Cold War: she managed to get her entire class of kids under their desks before her windows literally exploded: she was the only injured person. This could be the first recorded case of where such a maneuver actually spared school kids of any actual injuries. I recall doing them when I was of that age back in the day. Of course, then we were preparing for a nuclear attack, not just a piece of space rock.
The sonic boom from the Russian rock as it broke up in our atmosphere was low frequency, which is why it caused so much damage and in so many random places. These low frequency waves can travel through solid matter and if they hit just right can cause things to resonate and break apart. Some homes would be intact while their neighbor’s windows were literally lifted out of their wooden frames. While it is tempting to make some kind of crack on the quality of Russian construction, it is more physics and happenstance than anything else.
Meanwhile, we need better tools to track these close encounters, and of course we have some Googlers and former astronauts who have put together the b612foundation.org to fund tracking research efforts. Its name comes from the story The Little Prince. What I found interesting is how often these smaller-sized rocks intersect with Earth: of course, since our planet is mostly ocean, they don’t have as spectacular results as we saw last week.
Meanwhile, I am still waiting for the Flat Earth Society to re-open its membership roll.