Asteroid Apocalypse

By Kaku, Michio | Newsweek, February 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

Asteroid Apocalypse


Kaku, Michio, Newsweek


Byline: Michio Kaku

The recent crash-down in Russia was a fleabite. The one in 2036 could destroy our planet ...

Maybe Chicken Little was right after all.

It was an amazing spectacle, a rapid succession of giant asteroids blazing across the sky. First, on February 15, Russia was hit with the biggest asteroid in 100 years. Barely a few hours later, an even bigger one made the closest approach to Earth ever recorded for an asteroid of its size. Then the residents of San Francisco, Cuba, and south Florida looked up and saw meteors streak across the sky, rattling their nerves.

It was a historic display of nature's cosmic firepower, something I never expected to see in my lifetime. Mother Nature was showing Hollywood who's boss.

The city of Chelyabinsk in Russia bore the brunt of the celestial fireworks. A piece of rock, about 50 feet across and weighing more than 7,000 tons, came crashing to Earth. Traveling at a blinding speed of over 40,000 miles per hour, it created a sonic boom and shock wave that shattered windows across the city: 1,200 people were injured, mainly by the flying pieces of glass, and 52 were hospitalized, 2 of them in serious condition. Chelyabinsk, once known as one of the most polluted places in the world due to its storage of nuclear waste, will now be known as "meteor city."

The asteroid packed a huge punch, the power of 20 Hiroshima bombs. It was a "city buster," capable of flattening a modern metropolis and reducing it to rubble. It was a miracle that the asteroid exploded roughly 10 to 15 miles above ground: had there been a ground burst, it would have caused tens of thousands of casualties. If that asteroid had hit just a few seconds later, it would have created a tragedy on Earth.

While Russia was still reeling from the shock of this meteor impact, just a few hours later, 17,200 miles in space, an asteroid three times larger than the Russian one came within a whisker of hitting Earth. Called 2012 DA14, it actually sailed about 5,000 miles closer to Earth than our communications satellites (which orbit at 22,000 miles). If the asteroid had arrived just a few minutes earlier, it might have hit Earth, with truly cataclysmic consequences.

To see what might have happened in the case of a collision with DA14, one can study the 1908 Tunguska impact, which hit Siberia with the force of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs, giving Earth a black eye. That meteorite was about the same size as DA14, i.e., the size of an apartment building. The energy of the impact was so great that it devastated 830 square miles of Siberia, including 80 million trees. Pictures of the area show millions of trees lying on their sides, as if a giant hand came down and flattened every tree in sight. The impact was so spectacular that the blast was heard hundreds of miles away, and strange lights were seen as far away as Europe.

Fortunately, the 1908 and 2013 asteroids that hit Russia missed hitting a major metropolitan area like Moscow. However, because of the similarity with nuclear blasts, one can imagine what might happen if such an object had hit, say, New York.

First, one would see a blinding flash of light as the asteroid smashed into Earth. Midtown Manhattan would be instantly vaporized by the impact, leaving a crater almost a mile wide. Seconds later, the blast wave would spread out from the crater, toppling all the skyscrapers in the city as if they were made of twigs. Minutes to hours later, there would be a rain of fiery meteors falling from the sky, created by debris blown out of the original crater. Then, for hours and days, firestorms would incinerate an area roughly 30 miles from the impact site. Large swaths of Long Island, Connecticut, Westchester County, and New Jersey would be set on fire. At Hiroshima, about 100,000 people died in the opening phase of the blast. An asteroid impact could have casualties numbering in the millions. …

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