Tuesday, November 22, 2011 1:41 PM
Search the Internet for “the next asteroid to hit earth” and you’ll find a litany of meteoric anxieties and galactic hyperbole. Reporting on the “QQ47” asteroid in 2003, CNN.com devolved into hysterics, warning that “A giant asteroid is heading for Earth and could hit in 2014” and “On impact, it could have the effect of 20 million Hiroshima atomic bombs.” Not to miss a scoop, The Daily Mailalerted us of planet-clobberer “1999 RQ36” which “has a 1-in-1,000 chance of actually hitting the Earth at some point before the year 2200, but is most likely to hit us on 24th September 2182.” At “more than 1,800 feet across,” author Niall Firth explains, the asteroid “would cause widespread devastation and possible mass extinction.”
In light of the frequent news of earth-bound space junk that, like a meteor shower, usually flashes and flares out in the atmosphere of our consciousness, wouldn’t it be nice to have a tool that calculated the actual effects of an asteroid impact? Your wishes have been answered by the earth and atmospheric sciences department at Purdue University, which commissioned the web-based program Impact Earth!
Impact Earth! is like a mash-up between Angry Birds and Armageddon, an interface that allows you to tweak the size, makeup, velocity, and impact site of an asteroid and volley it toward our unsuspecting, defenseless planet. After a brief animation, the program spits out perverse statistics like crater size, likelihood of tsunami, energy released (measured against megatons of TNT), and the time it takes for you to feel the shockwave. You can also learn about famous collisions in earth’s pockmarked history, such as Siberia’s Tunguska Fireball of 1908. All in all, it’s probably the most pornographic creation in astronomy in decades.
Purdue used the “near miss” of asteroid 2005 YU55 on November 8 to introduce Impact Earth! to the world. “YU55 would strike with a velocity of 11 miles per second,” according to Purdue’s press release, “Although it would begin to disintegrate as it passed through the atmosphere, the fragments would strike in a compact cluster that would blast out a crater 4 miles in diameter and 1,700 feet deep.” The report continues: “Sixty miles away from the impact site the heat from the fireball would cause extensive first-degree skin burns, the seismic shaking would knock down chimneys and the blast wave would shatter glass windows.” Good to know, good to know.
The interface reminds me of a Google Maps mashup/mapplet from a couple of years ago called Ground Zero that plays on the same premise—but with nukes. Being linked to the Google Maps software gives Ground Zero an element of schadenfreude that Impact Earth! lacks. Namely, the ability to level the city of your choosing. Take that, Cleveland! Auf wiedersehn, Baden-Wurttemberg! Choose from eight different levels of ordinance, from the Hiroshima-sized 15 kiloton “Little Boy” to the 50-megaton Soviet hydrogen bomb “Tsar Bomba” and launch. It even allows you to see the effect of an asteroid, although in much less nuanced detail than Purdue’s software.
For the sake of illustration, the image you see above displays the blast radius of a 21-kiloton “Fat Man”—similar to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan—if it were dropped on Purdue University. A mile and a half away, in downtown Layfayette, people would be suffering the sunburn-like discomfort of 1st degree burns.
Unfortunately the entire staff and student body of Purdue, including the earth and atmospheric sciences department, would survive for a maximum of 24 hours in such a situation.
Image a screenshot from Impact Earth! A version of this article was originally posted at
Monday, March 15, 2010 2:50 PM
Saying Pluto is not a planet is a sure-fire way to make children angry. When the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan excluded Pluto from its list of planets, children protested. Loudly. And sometimes to planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson himself. The PBS show NOVA compiled a few samples of the hate mail, including this gem from Madeline Trost of Plantation, Florida:
Why can’t Pluto be a planet? If it’s small doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be a planet anymore. Some people like Pluto. If it doen’t [sic] exist then they don’t have a favorite planet. Please write back, but not in cursive because I can’t read in cursive.
Tuesday, March 09, 2010 11:13 AM
This beautiful 65-second, time-lapse video shows off how tiny the earth is in comparison to the rest of the Milky Way. The video, taken from Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is simply breathtaking.
The White Mountain from charles on Vimeo.
(Thanks, Open Culture.)
Friday, December 11, 2009 4:25 PM
When I saw amateur astronomer Ralf Vandebergh's photos of astronaut Joe Acaba on a spacewalk, I did the only natural thing: I cursed. I'm guessing that's what Ralf did too. It was a welcome reminder of a great piece we reprinted in the magazine a few issues back about sidewalk astronomy. The piece was penned by a sidewalk astronomer for the zine Geneva13. It was all about cursing the heavens:
One evening I was showing some college students the planet Saturn through the telescope. Suprita, a sophisticated and polite student from India, took one look, breathed in audibly, and came down the stepladder. “Can I curse?” she asked. I shrugged. Suprita stepped back up to the eyepiece and let out a string of obscenities in a discordantly lovely accent.
Ready for some cussing? Here's what Ralf saw:
Source: Wired, Geneva13
Friday, November 27, 2009 10:28 AM
Lucky for all of us, graphic designer Simon Page was on it. His posters for this year-long sky party, a project of the International Astronomical Union and UNESCO, are stunning... and they are for sale.
(Thanks, Creative Review.)
Tuesday, June 02, 2009 11:23 AM
There may be nothing new under the sun, but there’s something new on the sun: sunspots. Last fall, astronomers who ignored their mothers’ advice not to look at the blazing orb observed the spots—which are actually powerful magnetically induced storms—on its surface after a nine-month absence, Canadian Geographic reports (article not available online). The sun hadn’t been spotless that long for 50 years.
The newly increased activity means we’re entering a new 11-year solar cycle in which sunspots will become more and more common. What’s it mean? Maybe warmer weather.
“A spotless sun is slightly cooler than a spotty sun, because the roiling solar plasma around the sunspots generates more energy,” the magazine writes. “Researchers are attempting to establish a correlation between solar activity and the earth’s weather. From 1645 to 1715, the solar cycle stopped, and sunspots virtually disappeared. This interval coincided with the Little Ice Age, a period of severe winters in the Northern Hemisphere that hasn’t been experienced since.”
The spotty sun will almost certainly mean more spectacular northern lights, or aurora borealis, which increase along with solar activity. A light-chasing Alaska photographer who calls himself the Aurora Hunter writes, “We are in the trough, ‘Deep Solar Minimum,’ and will soon be heading upward into what is referred to as Solar Cycle 24.” In layman’s terms, he compares sunspots to “a giant revolving firehose emitting energy into space.”
But don’t rush outdoors at night just yet: The cycle isn’t expected to peak until 2011-2013.
To stay up to date on solar activity and aurora forecasts, visit the website of the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska, or Calspace’s Space Weather page.
Sources: Canadian Geographic, Aurora Hunter, Geophysical Institute, Space Weather
Image by Don J. McCrady at StarryVistas.net, courtesy of the photographer
Friday, February 27, 2009 10:18 AM
Mapping the universe is a vast and overwhelming job that scientists can’t do on their own. The website Galaxy Zoo has asked everyone on the internet for help identifying galaxies across the universe.
Visitors to the site are asked a series of simple questions about images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, mostly having to do with shapes. “This is a job that humans are much better at than computers,” according to the Galaxy Zoo website, “so most of the questions should be fairly easy.
The task seems like a simple game, but the effort has resulted in serious science. Four papers have already been published based on the project’s findings and at least four more are on the way.
Source: Galaxy Zoo
Wednesday, December 17, 2008 11:31 AM
The majesty of the cosmos seems somewhat diminished when scientists refer to planets by alphanumeric designations. David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” would be less impressive were it named “Life on HD 11964 d.” And I doubt that a book called, “Men Are From Kappa CrB b, Women Are From TrES-1 b” would sell very well. We give proper, sometimes impressive names to planets in our solar system, and Christopher Cokinos asks in the American Scholar (article not available online), “Shouldn’t we extend the courtesy to planets that orbit other stars?”
Giving creative names to distant planets could restore a sense of wonder and a greater attachment to the celestial bodies, Cokinos writes. When planets are named after mythological characters, it gives them a back story that amateurs and laypeople can understand better. It also places our planet as “part of a cosmic family and place worth protecting.”
To emphasize the point, here’s David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?”:
Saturday, January 05, 2008 12:28 PM
High-powered telescopes can now peek at the origins of distant stars, but there’s still little we know about our own cosmic backyard. Take, for example, the outer solar system: the dark, comet-infested void beyond the planets. Writing for Space.com, Charles Q. Choi runs through some of the open questions surrounding the outer solar system.
One of Choi’s most intriguing unknowns is an area known as the Oort Cloud, a scattering of trillions of comets spinning in the far reaches of the solar system. It’s so far away from the sun that no human has ever actually see it, scientists have only inferred its existence. Some have hypothesized that the Oort Cloud was part of a “protoplanetary disk” that surrounded the sun some 4.6 billion years ago. Understanding the mysteries the cloud contains could give insight into the formation of our humble earth.
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