Last month, 200 scientists from NASA and the European Space Agency tried to save New York City from being annihilated by an asteroid hurtling towards us from outer space. Rocket impactors were launched to deflect the incoming object of mass destruction, but merely broke it up into several pieces, one of which was still on a collision course with the megapolis. Another rocket was on the launch pad ready to be fired, but political bickering delayed its launch until it was too late. The result? The human race was not able to save New York and it was wiped off the map.
It was all merely a simulation, of course. It is sobering that despite all of our technological achievements, we cannot protect ourselves from space and objects floating around out there that may be headed our way. It seems almost weekly that we hear about a space rock cruising by us a little too close for comfort. Nowadays we have the ability to spot many more of them. Still, we get surprised every now and then.
The small asteroid that exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013 caught us completely by surprise. It damaged 7,200 buildings in that city and injured 1,500 people, mostly from broken glass. That little rock was only 60 or 70 feet across.
The dinosaurs did not have a chance. That event, millions of years ago, not only wiped out them out, but also 75% of the plant and animal species on the planet. It was a whopper, 7 to 50 miles wide! Computer simulations indicate that an asteroid only 5 miles wide splashing down in the South Atlantic Ocean, would produce a tidal wave 6 miles high, when it reaches Kansas.
Gliese 710 is coming
Does that sound scary? It should, because it is not a matter of if but when a rock of doom will set its sights on us. Let’s forget about asteroids for a moment. What about a star? It is really going to be terrifying when Gliese 710 comes calling.
Gliese refers to Wilhelm Gliese, a German astronomer who cataloged nearby stars. Number 710 on his list is just an ordinary old star a little bigger than half the size of our sun. There are bunches of them out there. To put it in perspective, our sun is 864,340 miles across. That means Gliese 710 is a whole lot bigger than a measly little asteroid. What is different about this small star is that it is barreling through space headed right for us!
I can assure you it is not going to hit the earth, that would be a catastrophe to say the least. It is coming close, though, way too close for comfort. Astronomers predict it will plow into something called the Oort Cloud. Way out beyond Pluto lurks a vast reservoir of comets named for the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort. There may be as many as a trillion of them out there, which is a big number, by the way. Every now and then for whatever the reason, one or two of them falls out of that cloud in towards the sun. Eventually we may get to see one as a beautiful comet with a long tail gracing our night skies.
Think of the Oort Cloud as a nest of angry hornets. One or two of them buzzing around is not too much of a worry, but you do not want to poke a stick into those hornets and stir them up. That is exactly what Gliese 710 is going to do. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of comets will fall into the inner solar system, slamming into all the planets including us. Think about that 6-mile-high tidal wave. It could be happening over and over again. Some astronomers say it will be the most-violent event our solar system has experienced since the period of late heavy bombardment three billion years ago.
Safe for a while
I should say that you do not need to rush out and buy collision insurance tomorrow. Gliese 710 will not get here for another million years. Then it will take thousands of years more for any comets to make the long fall from the Oort Cloud down to earth.
If you still dare to leave the cover of your house and go out under the night sky, be sure to look up. The Summer Triangle, three bright stars in a large triangle, is coming up in the east. You do not have to stay up too late to see Jupiter. It will be the brightest object out there low in the southeast.
Do not worry too much about this whole disaster from the sky business. Humans are very creative creatures and I am sure we can come up with plenty of other ways to end our existence before Gliese 710 knocks on our door.