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Space Rock 101: Asteroid Doomsday or Payday?

3D simulation of the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion by Mark Boslough, rendered by Brad Carvey using the CTH code on Sandia National Laboratories' Red Sky supercomputer. Andrea Carvey composited the wireframe tail. Photo by Olga Kruglova.

That Feb. 15 asteroid that burst over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk has reset thinking regarding damage caused by smaller space rocks. Also, there may be more small asteroids than formerly thought.

These findings and other research observations are on view tonight on a special PBS television airing.

The Russian asteroid fireball earlier this year injured about 1,500 people and damaged more than 7,000 buildings, collapsing roofs and breaking thousands of windows.

Sandia physicist Mark Boslough was part of a team of 33 researchers who completed detailed study of the 500-kiloton airburst over Chelyabinsk, examining the characteristics of the fireball. At its peak, the airburst appeared to be 30 times brighter than the sun.

Using data collected by visiting the area shortly after the asteroid struck, along with data from an international team, Boslough developed several additional simulations that he and other researchers have used to model the explosion and estimate the force of the blast.

Risk from airbursts

“Because the frequency of a strike of an asteroid of this size has exceeded expectations, with three such strikes in just over a century (Chelyabinsk, Tunguska in 1908 and a large airburst in the South Atlantic in 1963 detected by infrasound), the number of similar-sized asteroids capable of causing damage may be greater than suspected,” Boslough said in a Sandia press statement.

“We really have to rethink the risk from airbursts. Chelyabinsk was unusual due to the a low inclination at which it entered the atmosphere, but 90 percent of objects enter the atmosphere at a steeper angle and cause more damage on the surface,” Boslough said.

Will future asteroids trigger massive extinctions? How about mining asteroids for precious minerals?

Join Sandia’s Boslough and others that will explore these issues during a PBS airing tonight, first airing on November 20 at 9 pm on PBS.

For more information on the show, go to:

By Leonard David


  • Clint Jones February 1, 2014

    PBS Nova’s latest asteroid study showed up a couple of months ago as “Doomsday or Payday,” and it was pretty good with some new ideas. So when it came on again, last night, I sat down to take a few notes. Besides, they announced that NEW information would be shown at the end. Great. This is the notes.

    “Doomsday or ” opened with all the great footage of last year’s Russian asteroid, along with every hole in the ground that has ever been blamed on meteorites reaching terra firma. Miles of flattened trees from a century ago, dinosaur extinction, and more. And from last year’s shallow-angle meteor strike, just like I remembered Nova telling us, somebody found the surviving space remnant in the Russian snow. They explained how this and most other meteors and meteorites usually come from the millions of asteroids circling just beyond Mars. They do not often bump their way out of there, and almost never come near to us. The scant few that do, and even enter our atmosphere, burn up as the meteors we see. The rarest number actually reach the ground.

    But we are annihilated if a bigger asteroid escapes, approaches us at the worst angle, and lands in a big city. By rehashing a dozen movies, more or less, PBS Nova then explained that we can detect killer asteroids, if we will. But since everybody knows that, the new idea is to use the same effort to mine the asteroids for treasure, and deflect the wandering offenders, as needed. Even more important is the space fuel out there. I had forgotten that, from my first viewing. Rocket fuel is all the frozen water that can be separated into Hydrogen and Oxygen, coming from asteroids that are conveniently scattered through space. Like cosmic gas stations.

    So Nova’s title ” or Payday” comes from traveling just past Mars to asteroids, filling up on fuel, and bringing home their valuable elements. All we need do is to develop the capability. We could even use special techniques to drag a practice asteroid home. Parked in orbit around the moon, one important first asteroid becomes the platform for developing all the new machinery that it takes to “Use Our Asteroids.” That’s right! They had said that, the first time I saw this! So when it is all perfected, we can get moving through space again, in style.

    But, all of a sudden: “ALERT!,” and “Update!” flashed on the screen, then “Live from the Moon,” as an image of its rounded surface appeared, with something “out there” slowly approaching. A new and different announcer began telling us that the clever methods to move asteroids had, in fact, been deployed on this one, and it had all started months ago. This was a real treasure, big and juicy, and just now arriving. And this Nova broadcast was the perfect time to announce the whole operation.

    As they launched into more complete explanations, I wrote furiously to record this monumental achievement of mankind. The info was really starting to roll, when all of a sudden the announcer asked “It what? . . . No lunar orbit?” Everything changed. For a couple of minutes, he appeared to ad lib, explaining that any asteroid not captured by the moon is an out of control liability. Suddenly, his voice took a turn for the worse. “It’s not. It can’t be. We’re done here?” Finally, “We are leaving. Everybody prepare yourselves.” And PBS went off the air. PBS was . . . gone.

    Seriously alarmed, I changed TV channels for a while and couldn’t find anything more about it, right at first. But all of a sudden, a network news guy was on the air, with a special report. I didn’t recognize him and don’t remember which network he was part of, but he was saying “. . . An asteroid is approaching us from the moon, right now. We are not sure how this happened. Reports are coming in.” Glued, I froze in place. I kept writing these notes, though, now meant for you. In a few minutes it came together, and actually more quickly than I expected. He said “Estimates are coming in of how soon this large asteroid will pass by.” (to the side) “It may not pass by? What does that really say? Quicker! What I do have,” he said, (scowling and looking down) “is another report that we brought this asteroid to us, on purpose- to circle the moon so we could mine its wealth. Is that a good idea? OK- I have that crucial estimate. The asteroid is just now entering our atmosphere, at the perfect angle for direct impact somewhere on” (very slowly now) “Manhattan Island of New York City.” (long pause, then, quicker again) “Is this correct? What happened to circling the moon? Manhattan is us.” (Much louder, now) “Us! Whose idea was this?” (somebody yells- ‘out the window, I see it!’) “10 seconds to impact?” (takes in a breath, then asks) “This thing could still be safe, in space? But we dragged it here?” Now looking towards the window, he screamed: “If they had just left the (blank) thing the (blank) alone” (Ka-boom, flames, flicker, stand-by message) Then the network was gone, worse than when PBS went black.

    Stunned, I was desperate to make sense of it all. But my own lights flickered and everything went dark. I am a couple thousand miles away! The best thing is to transfer my notes and send them to you. I’ve been typing by candlelight and I think I’ve got enough battery in my laptop to finish, then to run it down the street- I see a light down there, so that guy must have a backup generator. Why don’t I?

    I say to you (if the Internet is still up, that is) I don’t know what will happen, but I wish you the best to get out of this mess.