"This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth," said NASA's Jim Bridenstine

By Jason Duaine Hahn
May 02, 2019 04:20 PM
QAI Publishing/UIG via Getty

While modern society hasn’t experienced the effects of a catastrophic meteor impact on Earth, fortunately, a hit from rock massive enough to destroy an entire U.S. state is a genuine threat, NASA warned this week.

“This is not about Hollywood. It’s not about movies,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced at the Planetary Defense Conference in Washington D.C. on Monday, according to NBC News. “This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life.”

Bridenstine cautioned that not enough is being done to prepare for meteor impacts, and governments around the world have not taken the issue seriously due of the “giggle factor” — meaning, since the problem seems unlikely or far off into the future from happening, people tend to dismiss it.

“I wish I could tell you that these events are exceptionally unique, but they are not,” said Bridenstine, who was nominated by President Donald Trump to manage the agency in September 2017. “These events are not rare — they happen. It’s up to us to make sure that we are characterizing, detecting, tracking all of the near-Earth objects that could be a threat to the world.”

While it may seem the planet has largely gone unscathed, Earth has actually been hit by large meteorites three times in just the last 110 years, including an impact reported in Brazil in 1930 and the Tunguska Event of 1908 in remote Siberia, which reportedly had a blast so powerful it knocked over a man sitting in his chair 40 miles from the impact zone.

Bridenstine pointed to the meteor that rocked Russia in February 2013, which exploded over the country’s Urals region injured 1,000 people, including 200 children.

The blast sent glass flying from windows that shattered when a sonic boom followed the meteor’s explosion.

“It was brighter in the sky than the sun at that point when it entered Earth’s atmosphere. And people could feel the heat from this object from 62 kilometers away,” Bridenstine said.

“When it finally exploded 18 miles above the surface…it had… 30 times the energy of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima,” he continued. “[It] damaged buildings in six cities.”

Pointing to scientific modeling systems, Bridenstine said destructive meteorites such as the one that occurred in Russia should be expected about once every 60 years.

Bridenstine said NASA is working to detect and track 90 percent of nearby asteroids that measure 140 meters or larger (about the length of one-and-a-half football fields), as an impact from a rock that large could be enough to wipe out an entire state or small country.

The asteroid that struck Earth over the Yucatán Peninsula 66 million years ago that brought an end to dinosaurs and wiped out a large scope of life on the planet is said to have measured 7.5 miles at its width, according to National Geographic. The impact caused debris and soot (and possibly sulfur) to enter the atmosphere, blocking out the sun and chilling the planet.

“We know for a fact that the dinosaurs did not have a space program,” Bridenstine added. “But we do, and we need to use it.”

Illustration of an impending meteor impact

During the conference, Bridenstine reaffirmed that the agency is dedicated to putting a female astronaut on the moon by 2024, after being challenged with the task by Vice President Mike Pence.

“The first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil,” Pence said in March.

That same month, NASA had to abruptly pull the plug on the first all-female spacewalk in history because they didn’t have enough spacesuits to fit the astronauts.