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    Coming Soon to a Planet Near You: Asteroids

    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 The Eschatologist.

    Published on Nov 22, 2011


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