An Asteroid Is Coming. Don’t Panic

Not to worry anyone, but tomorrow, an asteroid is headed our way. According to astronomers, there is no danger of it hitting the planet, but it will actually end up being closer to us than any asteroid ever observed. NASA estimates that at about 2:24 EST, Asteroid 2012 DA14, as it has been named, will be only about 17,200 miles from the Earth. It sounds like at lot, but to give you an idea of how close that is, satellites that are in geosynchronous orbit are 22,245 miles above the planet. So this 150-foot diameter space rock will come even closer than that while traveling at speed of about five miles per second. (Thankfully, no other satellites are in its path since they orbit much closer to Earth — the International Space Station, for example, orbits at an altitude of 240 miles.)

According to NASA, however, little DA14 could have made quite an impact if it made a direct hit:

Asteroid 2012 DA14 will not impact Earth, but if another asteroid of a size similar to that of 2012 DA14  were to impact Earth, it would release approximately 2.5 megatons of energy in the atmosphere and would be expected to cause regional devastation.

A comparison to the impact potential of an asteroid the size of 2012 DA14 could be made to the impact of a near-Earth object that occurred in 1908 in Tuguska, Siberia. Known in the asteroid community as the “Tunguska Event,” this impact of an asteroid just slightly smaller than 2012 DA14 (approximately 100 – 130 feet) is believed to have flattened about 825 square miles of forest in and around the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in what is now Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia.

Evidently this sort of thing is not unheard of. Scientists at NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office estimate that an asteroid the size of 2012 DA14 flies this close every 40 years on average and that one will impact Earth, on average, about once in every 1,200 years. But this time, we’re safe. Not even cell phones will be affected. So scientists will have a ball and we can breathe easy. No need to alert Bruce Willis.

And if you want to check out the asteroid as it goes by, there are quite a few sites that are providing live streaming of the event. Go science.

It’s Raining Satellite Parts

An estimated 26 pieces of a school bus-sized dead satellite are predicted to survive reentry into the earth’s atmosphere and have a good chance of crash landing somewhere on land (or sea) tomorrow.

But don’t take off for the nearest bunker just yet. NASA says the chances are 1 in 3,200 that someone somewhere will be hit and they have just now reported that the satellite will not hit the United States.

The latest predictions of the satellites re-entry mean that the U.S. will miss out on the stunning sight of the spacecraft as it re-enters the atmosphere. A NASA spokesman said: “Re-entry is expected sometime during the afternoon of Sept 23, Eastern Daylight Time. The satellite will not be passing over North America during that time period. It is still too early to predict the time and location of re-entry with any more certainty, but predictions will become more refined in the next 24 to 36 hours.”

Launched from the Space Shuttle Discover on September 15, 1991, the Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite (UARS) was the first satellite dedicated to studying the science of the stratosphere. As Discovery News reports, this machine was a commendable satellite among the many space vessels.

The final demise of this bus-sized hero of atmospheric science is happening almost 20 years to the day after its launch. There were many other major discoveries over the years, of course. The project scientists have their own top ten list. But if you remember only two things about this NASA workhorse, let it be these:

  • In its first two weeks of operation, UARS data confirmed scientists’ theories about ozone depletion over the polar regions by providing three-dimensional maps of ozone and chlorine monoxide near the South Pole during development of the 1991 ozone hole.
  • UARS data provided conclusive evidence that chlorine in the atmosphere—originating from human-produced chlorofluorocarbons—is at the root of the ozone hole problem.

Impressive, indeed. So let us not focus solely on the hype surrounding its reentry tomorrow, but instead, focus on the accomplishments this man-made space scientist achieved during its career thousands of miles above us.

With lucky timing on our part, we covered the issue of space debris in our October issue. Within our Timeline column on the topic, we covered everything from the first warning of the dangers of space debris back in 1978, to the recent National Research Council report, saying the issue is at a “tipping point.” Check out the Risk Management site on October 1st to read the article its entirety.


Do you have insurance coverage for this type of event?

More Springtime Disaster with Arizona Fires

As if record-setting floods in the Midwest and deadly tornadoes throughout the South and Midwest were not enough disaster for this country in the last couple of months, Arizona is now battling the second-largest blaze in the state’s history.

The blaze has burned 486 square miles of ponderosa pine forest, driven by wind gusts of more than 60 mph, since it was sparked May 29 by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire. Now more than twice the size of Chicago, the fire became the second-largest in Arizona history Tuesday. No serious injuries have been reported, but the fire has destroyed 10 structures so far. It has cast smoke as far east as Iowa and forced some planes to divert from Albuquerque, N.M., some 200 miles away.

Firefighters from as far away as New York are working day and night in attempt to slow the spread of flames. But residents and firefighters alike are understandably worried since a blaze of this size accompanied by winds of such a high speed could move the Wallow Fire to the number one spot in Arizona’s list of largest fires.

So what’s the deal with all of these wild, weather-related disasters?

According to Bill Patzert, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the cause it not solely global warming, but more “global weirding.”

“Sometimes it gets wild and weird,” says Patzert. In more technical terms, weather forecasters searching for a unifying explanation point to the La Niña climate pattern, a phenomenon born far out in the Pacific Ocean that shapes weather across the globe, in combination with other atmospheric anomalies that have altered the jet stream flow of air across North America. Less famous than its warm-water climate sibling El Niño, this year’s La Niña has been “near record-breaking” in its intensity, says climate scientist Michelle L’Heureux of the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md.

La Niña conditions occur every few years and can persist as long as two years. With the tornadoes, flooding and fires that have already ravaged parts of the U.S., and hurricane season upon us, it is unfortunately shaping up to be an active, expensive and deadly La Niña season.