by Grom Matthies

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Meteorite explosion over the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15, 2013.

 

Such a peaceful thing is the starry sky and doing astronomy. Isn’t it?

Well, on first sight it probably deserves a sounding yes. There is no relevant statistical evidence that looking at the sky or diving into the depths of knowledge of what fills the cosmos does any harm. Even the crime rate between most rivaling teams of astronomers or astrophysicist is still far below that of unpaid diplomatic parking fines.

The sky, the light from stars, planets, sun and moon are all inspiring in thousand and one different ways. Poets and song writers are well aware of that and make abundant use of it to lull our minds, give pleasure or delight.

But then there was a wake-up call.

Celyabinsk in Russia is a city with over a million inhabitants and was target destination for a bus sized rock from space last February 15th.

For the first time since mankind reached self-awareness and can talk about it, an asteroid dropped over a densely populated region causing injuries and massive damage. The consequences could have been by far worse, right up to regional cataclysmic level, hadn’t the rock exploded and disintegrated almost 20 km above the city.

On that same day, astronomers were actually eager to monitor a completely different tiny asteroid (40 m diameter) approaching Earth to a rarely seen minimal distance, well below the orbits of geostationary satellites.

This was not the first time Russia took a hit from outer space. In 1908 over 2000 square kilometers were instantly turned into wasteland by an asteroid or comet remnant exploding on its way down to the surface. Luckily, that region was uninhabited.

Until recently, things dropping from the sky and on our heads were no theme for conversation unless amongst a few dedicated professionals. But this double event shook the spirits and made all Earth inhabitants aware of something they would have preferred not to know.

The thing is…on the scale of the events in Russia, this can happen unannounced any moment. We do not have the capability to monitor or detect most of the small sized bodies in collision route with Earth until a few hours before impact. A few projects try to detect at least all those bigger rogue rocks that could wipe us out for good. But even those projects can’t get them all. And all it needs is one…ask the dinosaurs.

Jupiter received at least three known impacts in the last decades. Each one strong enough to make most life parish if any would have hit Earth.

In mid October a recently detected asteroid, impressive 50 km in size, might actually hit planet Mars. Stay tuned for that one.

In November and onward a comet named ISON might make an amazing appearance in our sky, though by no circumstance this will imply any danger to us, as the comet will pass more than 60 million km far from Earth. Yet again, in our past, huge comets were motive for serious unrest and concern amongst the population.

The Global Astronomy Month (GAM) has lot of purposes and aims concerning the stars, the sky and us humans. But one objective permeates all of them: awareness…actually global wide awareness.

Being or getting aware of what makes a stars day, or that a great part of atoms and molecules in our body were once baked in a star and produced in a supernova, or grasping just the sheer size and extend of the Universe and all the stuff that fills it, is the fascinating part of astronomy.
The chance of getting wiped out as a race is another.

In the silent serenity under a dark starry sky one hardly can escape the feeling of marvel and fascination. Since February we can add a new sensation.

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gromGrom D. Matthies, as a member of NUCLIO (Portugal), is dedicated to public outreach, as well as teaching students and teachers alike the thrills of what is out there for us to study. Currently he is project leader for building a fully automated robotic observatory for educational entities.

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