Celestial Close Encounter of the Physical Kind

On the morning of Feb. 16, 2013, the small city of Chelyabinsk in the southern Ural Mountains of Siberia got a taste of what the last days of Atlantis may have been like.

Traveling at close to 40,000 miles per hour, a meteor flashed through the heavens and exploded with an estimated force of about 500 kilotons of TNT (or about 20 to 30 times the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan which ended World War II). The explosion occurred at about 10 to 15 miles above ground, but, still, the resulting shock wave blew out windows in over 3,000 buildings in six cities. The dazzling flash was witnessed by thousands (over 1,200 were injured by flying glass), and soon the multitude of photos taken by many digital cameras were going viral on the Internet.

As newsworthy as the event was, its full significance has only begun to be appreciated. Though entirely unforeseen by astronomers and astrophysicists, the Chelyabinsk meteor serves as both an unwelcome reminder of historic precedent and herald of 2013’s coming attractions. Few could fail to note similarities with the still unexplained 1908 Tunguska explosion (also in Siberia) thought to be the greatest impact event in modern history, leveling over 1,500 square miles. The Chelyabinsk meteor also opened what has already been called “the year of the comet.” Understandably many religious devotees see the heavens, these days, as full of long prophesied signs and wonders.

On the very day of the Chelyabinsk explosion, came a long-forecast close encounter of the physical kind with the asteroid DA14, a 150-foot-wide space rock, which passed just 17,200 miles above Earth’s southern hemisphere—closer than the orbit of many weather satellites. Scientists who publicly touted their prowess at being able to find and track the asteroid with such accuracy, openly admitted that if it had struck southern California, it could have wiped out everything from Los Angeles to San Diego. However, they somewhat smugly pointed out, Earth would suffer no damage from the encounter. The Siberia meteor, though considerably smaller, was still large enough to have destroyed most of any major city that it might have hit. And, yet, no one saw it coming. That much, at least, is not in dispute.

Suddenly the great danger that Earth faces from unexpected space projectiles is finding new credence in circles where previously scant attention was given to such risks, albeit with no shortage of derision for those who have warned of a very real threat. “Vindication for Entrepreneurs Watching Sky: Yes It Can Fall,” proclaimed the New York Times. “For decades, scientists have been on the lookout for killer objects from outer space that could devastate the planet,” wrote William J. Broad in the Times. “Warnings that they lacked the tools to detect the most serious threats were largely ignored, even as skeptics mocked the worriers as Chicken Littles.”

Overnight, though, the opinion climate has dramatically changed. From Silicon Valley to Washington, D.C., many are now flocking to the cause. “Wouldn’t it be silly if we got wiped out because we weren’t looking?” Edward Lu, a former NASA astronaut and Google executive who leads a major detection effort, told the Times. In the meanttime Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), vice chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, responded to the Russian fireball by telling, “the event should serve as a wake-up call.” Indeed.

In 1996, Atlantis Rising published the cover story, “Cosmic Collisions,” by Joseph Jochmans, which focused on the odds that we might soon face an unwelcome rendezvous. “Rocky or iron asteroids 2,000 feet or more in diameter and icy cometary bodies of 4,000 feet or more in size,” Jochmans wrote, “would be able to penetrate the atmosphere and hit the surface with forces of 10 to 100 megatons of TNT respectively.” In the years since, this publication has reported regularly on the danger involved. The possibility that such a strike could have destroyed ice age civilizations such as Atlantis may have helped to stimulate our interest.

Generally the notion that Earth’s long history has been punctuated by immense catastrophic events has been sneered at by mainstream academic science which has promoted a much more gradual scenario to explain our curious history. There have always been a few, though, like the late scientist, Immanuel Velikovsky, who have gone against the tide.

That the skies might provide omens for Earth’s future now seems more plausible. By the time you read this, the first of two comets expected this year will have appeared. The comet Pan-STARRS will have passed about 100 million miles from Earth and millions may have been able to see it. A far better chance for such viewing should come later this fall when the comet Ison will appear. Already trumpeted as the comet of the century, Ison may appear brighter than the moon and may fire the imaginations of many. Long feared as omens of disaster, comets, with their long, fiery tales have for millennia been identified as celestial dragons and bringers of trouble. To read about the possibility that the legend of King Arthur may have originated in the appearance of a comet, don’t miss Mark Andrew’s article elsewhere in this issue.

The re-emergence of ancient teachings that the sky has much to tell us about human destiny on Earth (“as above, so below”) is a growing trend. To read about the way in which all ancient traditions, including Christianity, have been shaped by sky wisdom, see Julie Loar’s report on “The Bible and Astrology,” also in this issue.