Asteroids, volcanoes — it's always something

Just two hours before kickoff at last Sunday’s Super Bowl, a gigantic asteroid, measuring a third of a mile across and hurtling through space at 76,000 mph, came within 2.6 million miles of slamming into Earth.

That may seem like a vast distance, but by astronomical measure, it’s the width of a whisker — close enough for NASA to call the rocky mass known as 2002 AJ129 a "potentially hazardous asteroid.”

Considering the outcome of the game, a few Patriots’ fans doubtless wouldn’t have minded if the asteroid plowed into the Eagles’ locker room, or at least grazed the city of Philadelphia.

Actually, astronomers had been tracking 2002 AJ129’s elliptical orbit for 14 years and were reasonably confident it wouldn’t suddenly make a beeline for our planet — but still …

By the way, who comes up with the names for asteroids, anyway? I mean, 2002 AJ129 sounds pretty lame for something capable of wreaking massive destruction. Me, I’d call it something like Monstro Avenger, or Thor’s Hammer.

Anyway, those of us who lie awake fretting about potential disasters — earthquakes, tsunami, the prospects of a second term — have a new source of angst: an enormous bulge of heated rock beneath much of New England that one day could turn into a hellfire cauldron of molten lava and erupt like Vesuvius.

Scientists from Yale and Rutgers University made this potentially alarming discovery recently after evaluating data from the National Science Foundation’s EarthScope program, which has placed thousands of seismic measurement devices across North America, Rutgers reported.

Although researchers took pains to assure the public it was unlikely that there would be any such catastrophe for millions of years, the news still must come as an awful shock to New Englanders who, for the most part, only have to deal with the occasional blizzard, hurricane or zoning application to build a big box store on the village green.

Particularly unsettling is the paranoiac possibility that maybe scientists aren’t telling us the truth. Fake news! Perhaps the hot rock already has liquefied, a pressure cooker about to blow.

Similarly, what if astronomers secretly feared Asteroid 2002 AJ129 really was on a collision course with Earth but decided against issuing a warning that would trigger widespread panic? What would be the point of telling people they’re doomed? It’s not as if you could hunker down in an underground shelter — an asteroid that big would not only blow everything to smithereens for hundreds or thousands of miles, it likely would send up a choking cloud of dust and possibly even ignite a monstrous spasm of flames.

Last summer, three friends and I kayaked 125 miles around central Quebec’s Manicouagan Reservoir in central Quebec, one of the world’s largest annular lakes formed more than 200 million years ago by a three-mile-wide asteroid that slammed into Earth with such force that boulders five miles deep were liquefied for thousands of years and a giant fireball flared out as far as what is now New York City. (Incidentally, I plan to write about this adventure soon).

So a big asteroid crashing into Earth would be way worse than any weather disaster.

For all you Chicken Littles, it turns out there are asteroids whizzing past us all the time, with some coming even closer than 2002 AJ129, including two small ones just this week.

Last year, 55 asteroids came closer to Earth than the moon, which is 238,860 miles away.

Astronomers have also classified nearly 15,000 asteroids as NEAs, or near-Earth asteroids with orbits close to our planet.

And on June 30, get ready to celebrate the U.N.’s International Asteroid Day, marking the 110th anniversary of the Tunguska asteroid that exploded over Siberia with the force of 1,000 atomic bombs. Scientists say a 770-mile swath of forest was flattened, and get this — the darned thing didn’t even hit ground; it blew up in the air. Luckily, the region is sparsely populated, and there were no reports of human casualties.

If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be partying on June 30; I’d be thanking my lucky stars every other day.

Back to that potential volcano brewing beneath New England: I’d hate for it to erupt before I had a chance to tap my maple trees, harvest my garlic crop or get in one more hike up Mt. Washington.

The potential threat, no matter how remote, should remind us to enjoy life’s simple pleasures while we can — you never know when the sky will fall or the world will rip apart.

 

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