Note: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Asteroid DA14 was 150-mile across.
Coming just one day after Valentine's Day, humanity will come within 17,200 feet of disaster. This week, mark your calendars, a small asteroid (or large meteoroid) — 150 feet across — will come between Earth at a distance much closer than our moon and even closer than some weather and communications satellites. However, while such a close fly-by is cause for some relief that we will escape having a disaster — and that scientists have indeed the ability to predict some of these events — it is also a sobering moment. The asteroid that will by-pass Earth on February 15 is a reminder that we exist in our minds and on Earth only as long as we are here.
An asteroid that is 150-feet across is not life-threatening to our existence here on Earth. A similar event occurred in 1908 in Siberia. The event, now known as the Tunguska Event occurred on the Podkamennaya Tunguska River. Eyewitness accounts recall a large, hot "thing" hurtling towards the Earth. While there is some speculation as to what the "thing" was, (aliens, the god Ogdy) it is generally believed to have been a meteoroid that was 120-feet across that smashed into the Earth releasing a fireball with the energy of 185 Hiroshima bombs.
The Tunguska explosion knocked an estimated 80 million trees down over an area covering 830 square miles. But while the damage at Tunguska was significant, no lives were lost during the disaster, thanks to the location, and life eventually returned to normal. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, "so it goes."
NASA has reported with certainty that the asteroid 2012 DA14 will miss Earth. The 150-mile wide rock poses no threat to life on Earth or even our satellites for that matter. Using information gathered from the Very Large Array and Very Large Baseline Array radio telescopes in New Mexico, NASA is working on determining the asteroid's spin direction — which will help them determine how it radiates heat from absorbed sunlight over time. The heat radiated from the asteroid acts as a kind of firm propulsion. This will give NASA insight into how the asteroid's path will change as it orbits the sun and comes back towards Earth in the future.
In the headlines this week, the asteroid is being largely downplayed as a bit of fluff news. With headlines that include words like "will buzz Earth" and "close-shave" and "an asteroid gets its close-up," the prospect of catastrophe has been largely and effectively downplayed. And, don't get me wrong; it should be to some extent. It is best not to dwell on those cosmic forces that can wipe out our species or way of life in the blink of an eye. It is best to live life with optimism and vigor and not in fear over the unknown.
But, at the same time, it is best not to forget how fragile all of this is in the larger scheme of things.
According to a report from NPR, this is the first time scientists have been able to predict an object so big coming so close to Earth. At the same time, it is also reported by Ed Lu, a former astronaut and head of the nonprofit B612 Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to protecting Earth from asteroids, that "we only know the locations and trajectories of about 1% of asteroids this size or larger. So for every one of these, there are 99 out there we don't know about." So it goes.
While Earth may reside in what Dan Durba calls a "cosmic shooting gallery" it should not be a fear of death that we take away from this, rather, it should be a reminder that things may be the best that they ever will be right now. Even Durba, with his fear of Earth being on a dartboard, recognizes that there is tremendous scientific opportunity in exploring these near-miss asteroids. It all comes back to seize the day.
The DA14 fly-by is a reminder that anything can happen to us at anytime and it's ok. It is a moment of reflection to see how far we've come and, at the same time, how close we are to the unknowable or unforeseeable. Take it from Bill Nye on CNN, we were "15 minutes" from having an area the size of New York City, Boston, or Atlanta being flattened ("don't want to worry the viewers at home" though) and something as significant as that is reason to take a pause and think about it.
We are a unique generation in our ability to discover these things and potentially change the course of events (If Armageddon and Deep Impact come to mind, you're welcome). We are also in a unique time in our ability to understand where these disasters come from and be able to live with that knowledge.
DA14 is presenting us with more than a "close shave" or a "buzz," it is a moment to reflect on how far we have come as a species and how fast it can be taken away. It is a reminder of how much is out of our control in the scheme of things and how important it is to seize the time we have and recognize it for how good it is. DA14 is a reminder that it is only a matter of time before we are a disputed footnote in a research paper about how humans went extinct.
So it goes.