In Search of Death Plunge Asteroids


MUCH TO THE DELIGHT of scientists and technicians, the frigid sky over the snow-covered Siberian fields and villages remained clear as dawn approached. The February stars put on a dazzling show as they revolved about Polaris, higher in the sky than many of the foreign visitors were used to seeing it. The frequency of sporadic meteors increased as the night grew long, as if providing a warm-up act.

Charter flights were already in the air, filled with business tycoons and celebrities, and rumor even had it that Russian President Vladimir Putin was on one. The planes could be seen in all directions except in the special airspace dedicated to cooperative research flights by the Russian Federal Space Agency, the European Space Agency, and NASA, and in the restricted airspace directly beneath the asteroid’s projected path. In order to keep light pollution from interfering with the observations, the nearby city of Chelyabinsk was in blackout. Everyone waited at the ready for the meteor event of the century.

This is a fictional account of what might have happened February 15, 2013, if we had been a decade further along in our efforts toward asteroid discovery and planetary defense. An array of powerful space-based infrared survey telescopes (such as the proposed NEOCam or Sentinel Mission), combined with dedicated ground-based telescopes (such as ATLAS and LSST, both currently under construction) might have been able to warn us of the 65-foot-wide (20 meters) asteroid that exploded over Russia, causing damage and alarm. We have pieced together the asteroid’s story from recovered fragments and serendipitous dashboard-camera footage. But imagine instead how the events near Chelyabinsk might have unfolded if an advanced detection system had already been in place.

The meteor explosion pictured here is the result of a 3-D simulation by the author. By modeling such events, —> Read More