With the world plunged in uncertainty and gloom—with a few exceptions like fans of Chelsea and Manchester City—a new ominous variable has now been added from space. A 60-metre-wide 140,000-tonne asteroid will apparently be whistling past Earth next February. Of course, “whistling past” in this case is 27,000 km away from the earth, but that’s pretty close in terms of astronomical distances. To put it in perspective, we have many communications and weather satellites orbiting the planet at distances higher than 30,000 km.
So there’s some chance that this runaway piece of rock, which currently goes by the name of DA14, could interfere with our weather reports and reality shows.
NASA has said that the chances of DA14 hitting the earth are very low: about 0.031%. But then, these rogue space objects are notorious for sudden route deviations. DA14’s trajectory is going to be seriously affected by the earth’s gravitational field, and currently, some of the most powerful computers on the planet are busy spewing out all sorts of probability charts.
Maybe some hedge fund whizkid could make a killing out of what is literally a pie in the sky?
In 1908, a large meteorite or a comet fragment burst in the air 5 to 10 km above the earth’s surface (close enough to be referred to as an “impact”) at Tunguska in Siberia, fortunately an area with no human habitation. The size of that object is estimated to be close to that of DA 14. Eighty million trees over an area of 2,150 sq km (that’s Greater Mumbai plus Delhi plus Kolkata) were felled. The most credible estimate of the energy blast released by the explosion is equivalent to 15 megatons of TNT, which is a thousand times more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
What does one do if it looks like DA14 is going to hit earth? One interesting idea is to use paint. Blast the damn thing with paint, which will affect the asteroid’s ability to reflect sunlight, changing its temperature and alter its course. The other solution is of course to attack it with some big-time firepower, blowing it up into pieces. Trouble is, for either of these strategies to work, one will need a spaceship that can venture close enough to DA14, and that sort of spaceship is going to take at least two years to build, by which time DA14 would have come and—hopefully—gone.
The good news is that if DA14 does come close enough to enter the earth’s atmosphere, it will most likely split into pieces which will burn up, and only a small part of the debris may reach the planet’s surface.
Right now, all that scientists can do is keep a hawk eye on DA14 and work on the probabilities. There’s definitely a financial derivative instrument idea lurking here somewhere. One just has to package it right.