March 23: the apocalypse that never was

Posted by Laura

What were you doing on March 23, 1989?

Not sure? Come on, you can do better than that. Nope? Then let me jog your memory a little: it was a momentous day – one that sent intergalactic shockwaves pulsing through the universe, changed the face of mankind as we knew it, and transformed the atmosphere on earth so radically it became just another isolated orb within the vast, star-strewn blanket of the Milky Way. Well, Nearly.

But this was a significant “nearly”. This time 18 years ago, our planet was skirted by an asteroid the size of a mountain which, had it struck, would have left a crater the size of Washington DC and caused unimaginable environmental and climatic devastation that no Hollywood fantasist could conjure up. How near were we to this Armageddon? About 500,000 miles or so – but still a very close call in scientific terms. So close, that March 23 will be forever remembered as Near Miss Day.

There have been other near misses since then. In December 1994 a small asteroid passed within 65,000 km of the planet. In June 2002, an asteroid, big enough to devastate 2,000 sq km but small enough to escape detection, skimmed Earth by a whiskerish 120,000 km. Luckily for us it missed – scientists didn’t actually see it until three days after it hurtled past at 10.6 km per second.

Close encounters of the cosmic kind are not as infrequent as you might think. The NASA website’s Near Earth Objects section reveals upcoming “close approaches” virtually every other day. Fittingly, there are two such passing visitors on March 23 this year    objects  2006 JY26 and 2007 FJ1 – but at 13,440,000 km and 14,284,800 km away respectively, their presence is not of the nature to make the space bods even break a sweat.

The really close ones, like those mentioned earlier, are of more interest. Astronomers estimate there are several each year, many only getting detected as they reach their closest point to earth, or after they have passed. Experts suggest there could be up to a million smaller, hard-to-detect asteroids with the potential to cause local devastation. But, before we brace ourselves for the world to be saved by Bruce Willis armed with some specially-adapted drill, the odds of us coming into contact with such matter are minuscule.

The bigger objects, with which a collision could pose significant global devastation, are closely monitored by specialist groups. But again, the possibility of any being on a trajectory to collide with earth is extremely unlikely. And, according to NASA, they would be identified early enough to use technology to deflect them away from our planet. The space agency rightly plays down the risk to earth from asteroids, but the chance of an impact over long periods of time is not entirely negligible.

Perhaps it’s best that on March 23, 1989, most of us marked the historic near miss by being blissfully oblivious to the monster in our midst.  Trying to work out the likelihood of an asteroid collision is enough to send even the most mathematical of minds into orbit. But this doesn’t make the notion of the great intergalactic unknown any less fascinating.  When I was first taught the big bang theory at school I spent many idle minutes letting my train of thought get caught in a perpetual loop of “if”. If the gravitational forces hadn’t been such to create the universe then would there just be a great expanse of nothing, and therefore no one to question how and why it all happened and to wonder, in turn, what would have been if it hadn’t all happened, hence no one to ask the question, “if”? I’m getting dizzy already.

There’s precious little time for infinite thoughts with no boundaries like these in chaotic modern life, so should we really be wasting more minutes marking a day which was generally as unremarkable as any other – only distinguished from the blur of weeks, months and years by something that didn’t happen? There are now so many symbolic days in our calendar it is difficult to keep track. Monday, for instance, is ironically Make Up Your Own Holiday Day. And Wednesday is Something On A Stick Day – thought up, presumably, by a very bored person on the previous year’s Make Up Your Own Holiday Day.

Every day has a significance now, it seems. Many mark grave events, or the resulting joy after the ending of such grave events. We commemorate wars, liberation from oppressive regimes, deaths, disasters. Yet this is precisely why I won’t be letting Near Miss Day pass without a knowing look skywards this year. Yes, it represents an almost, a nearly-but-not-quite. But it also symbolises the unquantifiable, the unknown, the beyond-fathomable enormity of what lies outside the trivialities of the day-to-day world and our view of it. Near misses remind us of just how small we are in the grand scheme of things, of the force of consequence and, ultimately, the power of the universe that surrounds and supersedes us. And that has got to be worth a pause for thought.

What do you think? Should we mark Near Miss Day? Let us know your thoughts and experiences.

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28 Responses to March 23: the apocalypse that never was

  1. Unknown says:

    Laura,
     
    When it comes to NOT-A-NEAR-MISS-DAY, can I be standing next to you? Ben

  2. Bruce says:

    When you said the near miss was by an object that would have devasted (oblitereated) Washington DC my immediate thought was what a pity, what a target! None more deserving. Are any more on the way, headed in that directioon?

  3. Unknown says:

    what kind of existense would there have been left if the \’near miss asteroid\’ had actually hit the earth? would we be as extinct as the dinosaurs??

  4. Unknown says:

    i think everyone should have a big world party to mark how close we were to non existence…..

  5. Bryan says:

    ouch! my head hurts thinkin about the ifs of creation too early in the mornin! lol

  6. Mr says:

    if it had of hit we would be exstinct but then the governments of the world wouldnt have told us of its impending approach and all we would have known would have been the big bang from the impact and that would have been that

  7. Susan says:

    Why do people always say Near Miss when actually it should be a Near Hit? If u think about it a Near Miss means it actually Hit but was close to missing. It Nearly missed. If it didnt hit but was close to the object, it should be a Near Hit because it just narrowly escaped contact.

  8. Dave says:

    In answer to why we say \’Near miss\’. Its called a near miss because you can clasify a miss as  a) any object that misses us – these can be billions of miles away or b) a miss that came \’near\’ to us or a \’near miss\’ as in the near miss in 1989

  9. Unknown says:

    Well that would pretty much do my nut if an asteroid hit Earth i mean there are too many good things, for example Sonic the hedgehog, Cars, The opposite sex, they pretty much kick ass… im gonna pull a sickie that day well nice talkin tootle pip.

  10. Dan says:

    why not, they\’re trying to take bank holidays away, so heck yeah near miss day it is!!!!! cue sounds of noisy blowy things and pary poppers……………………
     
    while we\’re at it, can we have "where did i put that day", so only on that day would we lose our keys / phones etc…..
     
    cool as

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