It’s been 70.3 million years, give or take a day or two, since the approximately six-mile-wide Chicxulub meteor landed in Yucatan, Mexico and caused a mass extinction event. Earth’s dinosaur inhabitants didn’t so much as lift a finger to try to stop it, a decision they weren’t around to regret.
More than 1.9 billion years before that, the Vredefort meteor, now believed to have been more than twice as large as the Chicxulub, impacted the earth at what today is Free State, South Africa. Nothing was done about it by the unicellular lifeforms that might have eventually become dinosaurs if they could have been bothered.
And so, this week I was happy to hear that the planet’s current dominant inhabitants have decided to take the threat more seriously. Since the very first discovery of an asteroid by Italian astronomer, mathematician, and priest Giuseppe Piazzi in 1901, humanity has held onto a little niggling feeling that a human-ending catastrophe might just be hurtling its way through space on a collision course with our big blue ball.
Piazzi’s asteroid, Ceres, isn’t a threat. It seems content enough in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and has even received an upgrade to dwarf planet. But there are plenty of rocks flying around up there. The researchers who look at such things suggest that asteroids that are at least three miles in diameter have struck the planet about sixty times in the 4.5 billion years or so it’s been around. Of those, three of them were likely large enough to have caused mass extinction.
Frankly, while three instances in 4.5 billion years is enough to keep writers of science fiction busy for a long time, I’m not really all that concerned. The odds of being alive to see it happen are pretty small.
Of course, it’s just this kind of nonchalant attitude that took out the dinosaurs. Lucky for humanity, I’m not in charge of Earth’s defenses against incoming space rocks.
Don’t worry, because NASA is on the job. This past Monday, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test successfully collided with and nudged a completely innocent asteroid that was too busy minding its own business to wipe out life on Earth.
Over the next months and years, astronomers all over the world will be observing and calculating just how much impact the DART had on the asteroid’s path and we will all breathe a little easier knowing that we might just be smarter than the average dinosaur.