Ask anyone why the Dinosaurs died out, and they will tell you it was because of an Asteroid hitting the Earth.
About 65 million years ago a 10 mile-wide Asteroid cashed into the Yucatan, Mexico with the force of 100 million megatons of TNT, sending an expanding cloud of debris into the upper atmosphere, which encircled the Earth, blocking out the Sunlight for centuries. The Dinosaurs after ruling the world for 165 million years were wiped out along with two thirds of life on Earth.
In his book “The Future of Humanity” world renowned physicist Michio Kaku reveals why the Dinosaurs became extinct. They were wiped out not by the Asteroid, but because they didn’t have a space programme.
There it is.
A sobering reminder that we live under the constant threat that one day an Extinction Event will be visited upon us. It is only a matter of time.
Last month Asteroid 1998 OR2, a two-mile-wide rock, crossed the Earth’s orbit within a mere 3.9 million miles of our home planet. Our solar system is roughly 187 billion miles across, so this Asteroid just flew past our garden gate. It will not be back for another 200 years, although next time it could be a closer shave.
This rock is one of many wayward solar objects to have escaped its home in the Asteroid
Belt, a vast ring of rock and ice debris orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Thought to be the debris of a failed planet from the early days of the solar system, these objects range in size from a few meters to 30 miles across. Over the millennia the Asteroid belt settled down into a nice smooth disc.
However, Newton’s laws of Gravity and Motion never sleep. As these orbiting objects come close to one another, they exert a gravitational influence, however small, on each other. Newton states that all actions have an equal and opposite reaction. This sometimes results in an object being imperceptibly nudged into a new trajectory. It might only be a degree or two, but a hundred million years later a rock the big enough to extinguish all life on the Earth might hit us on a quiet Thursday morning; our fate having been sealed long before Early Humans had even stood upright. And there would be nothing we can do it about it.
Each Action has an equal and opposite Reaction.
When NASA lit up the five massive Merlin Engines of the 300 foot high Saturn V Rocket, the most powerful machine ever built, they burned through 20 tons of fuel in just 120 seconds producing 7.5 million lbs of thrust as it lifted the Apollo missions on the start of their journey to the Moon. Although it looks like the Saturn V is pushing against the immovable Earth, it was also actually nudging our planet by about 1cm over 1000 years from its orbit. There were 13 Saturn V launches from Pad 39 at Cape Canaveral sending the Apollo missions to the Moon and Skylab into orbit – so a millennium hence, Earth will be 13 centimetres away from where it should be.
Astronomers at NASA and scientific institutes around the world are tracking and cataloguing all the known runaway space objects. They are hoping that if they discover a significant object threatening to the Earth, they can try and launch a space vehicle to nudge it on a different course, avoiding an Earth collision. Interestingly, last month’s Asteroid fly-past came as a complete surprise to them. They didn’t see coming. It is certainly in their catalogue now.
This week the first astronauts to leave Cape Canaveral in a decade, flew up to the Intl Space Station.
Standing on the same Launch Pad as Apollo, was a new generation of Rocket, the Heavy Falcon 9 built and operated by a private company – SpaceX. Sitting on top was a manned vehicle “Dragon 2”, flown by two ex-Shuttle pilots, Bob and Doug..
In the days of Apollo, 270 feet of the Saturn V costing millions of dollars was discarded after use, allowing it to fall back into the Ocean. Modern rocketry has moved on; as the Falcon 9 falls back to Earth it fires small rocket engines enabling them to Land upright. This reduces the cost of launches considerably. From now on, all journeys to the ISS will be on a Falcon 9 paid for by NASA like a taxis.
SpaceX’s owner Billionaire Elon Musk of PayPal & Tesla fame plans a Moon landing by 2024, this time to stay and to establish the beginnings of a Moon base. The big plan is to mine essential materials on the Moon to build larger space vehicles. The greatest challenge in rocketry is the huge expenditure of energy needed to escape the Earth’s gravity; but once in space that problem disappears. He dreams of workshops in Lunar orbit, in which rockets that could reach Mars would be built. Once there, SpaceX and others would establish another base and start “Terraforming” the Planet, adapting the environment so that Man can survive there.
Another Billionaire, Amazon founder Mike Bezos is also in the space game. He too
intends to land on the Moon, but his ultimate dream is to have orbiting cities. Mini planets designed to house thousands of people. Self-sufficient in energy and food. Vast circular tubes, slowly rotating to simulate gravitational conditions.
Nasa is turning the tables on the Asteroid Belt. In August, a robotic spacecraft will make NASA’s first-ever attempt to descend to the surface of an asteroid, – Asteroid Bennu – collect a sample, and ultimately bring it safely back to Earth in 2023 for analysis.
There are plans for a space vehicle to grab a small mineral rich Asteroid and steer into an orbit round the Moon, where it will be mined for rare precious metals. Many of them essential to meet the growing demand by the electronics Industry. Extracting the same metals here on Earth cause environmental damage and they are diminishing. In the far distant future, we could be helping ourselves to the abundant minerals and metals spread across the Solar System that will be the raw materials needed to colonise other planets and Moons.
The Earth is our cradle, but the time has come to do something about leaving the nest.
That might seem an awfully long way off, until you consider that Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon only 37 years after his good friend Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic.
Space is a dangerous place as the crew of Apollo 13 found after an explosion on their vehicle on the way to the Moon. As the life of the crippled space craft was ebbing away, both Apollo and NASA crews rapidly reinvented the mission. It was decided to use the
gravitational pull of the Moon to sling shot Apollo around the back side of the Moon then back towards the Earth. To achieve that they needed to fire an engine to increase their speed as they rounded the Moon so they would catapult on towards the Earth. The burn had to be done precisely to the second. The same calculations used to know where the planets are when we send probes to them and to predict the paths of rogue Asteroids got Apollo 13 on the path back home.
As Commander Jim Lovell said once the Earth came into view “We just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driving seat”
In about 4 billion years the Sun will start expanding. Mercury and Venus will simply vanish; the heat on the Earth will become intolerable, eventually with our atmosphere boiling off into space. The Sun will gobble up more planets, possibly as far as Jupiter before running out of energy and collapsing as gravity takes over again. This will be the end of our Solar system. Long before that happens humans must embark on Interstellar travel if we have any ambition to preserve our species.
Whilst the big objects play out their celestial ballet, choreographed by the laws of the Universe discovered by Sir Isaac Newton, we are under threat closer to home by microscopic menaces.
We are in the middle of a pandemic caused by a virus one hundredth the width of a human hair, yet it has stopped the world in its tracks. As viruses go, this is not that vicious. The terrible scourge of Smallpox was finally defeated by scientists in 1975 after wreaking havoc for well over 2,000 years. The Black Death in the 14th century wiped out
60% of the European Population. Virologists have identified 12000 viruses in Bats and Monkeys some of which may jump across to Humans, as Covid19 has done. One of those little suckers could prove to be just too much for our immune system bringing an unexpected and swift end to the party.
We now have enormous challenges with an approaching tipping point in climate change. I don’t even want to think about the 3,750 active nuclear weapons in a increasingly tense world.
It is a staggering thought that around 99.9 % of all the known species that have ever lived on this vulnerable planet have perished. Unless we push onwards and upwards, the odds are against our surviving.
Perhaps these near-miss Asteroid events is just Newton’s way of asking:
“Hey! – How’s that Space Programme coming along?”