Target Earth!

The name “Project Spaceguard” was deliberately borrowed from the 1973 science-fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama, by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, which describes a catastrophic meteorite impact in northern Italy in the year 2077, as a result of which a global early-warning system is set up to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated.

Ironically, the real Project Spaceguard was given impetus by a cataclysmic event occurring not on Earth, but millions of miles away, on the planet Jupiter.

However, for the real beginnings of Project Spaceguard, we must go back just over a century, to 1905, when the mining engineer D. M. Barringer and physicist Benjamin C. Tilghman claimed that the Coon Butte Crater in Arizona was caused by a meteorite impact. The suggestion met with considerable scepticism, though it must be remembered that at the time, the idea that meteorites could cause cratering was highly controversial and the majority of scientists believed the craters on the Moon (the only example of large-scale cratering then known to science) had a volcanic origin, a view that did indeed have some support until quite recently. Not until the 1920s was Coon Butte Crater accepted as being meteoritic in origin, since when it has been known, not entirely correctly, as the Meteor Crater.

One of the reasons the impact theory of cratering was slow to win acceptance was because it was rather at odds with the then prevalent doctrine of Uniformitarianism, under which change, both geological and biological, occurs gradually over million years. The idea that large meteorites could wreak enormous changes was reminiscent of Catastrophism, which states that events on Earth such as geological change, the evolution of life and even human history have been shaped by upheavals of a violent or unusual nature.

Catastrophism was not a new idea and until the early 19th Century, it was generally accepted that stories like the Biblical Flood related to actual events. It should be remembered that at this time the Bible was interpreted more literally that is usual now and it was widely believed that all life on this planet had been created exactly as described in the Book of Genesis. Such beliefs had largely died out after Charles Darwin put forward his Theory of Evolution and fossil evidence confirmed that life had evolved gradually over millions of years.

It was easy to be complacent at that time. The Arizona crater and others that came to light later were thousands and in some cases millions of years old; and the face of the Moon has not changed throughout recorded human history. Not for many decades would it be discovered that cratering exists on many other bodies in the Solar System. Yet the danger signs were there for those who cared to look.

On the morning of 30 June, 1908, a fragment of cosmic debris entered Earth’s atmosphere somewhere over western China. Travelling eastwards on a shallow slanting trajectory, it trailed a series of loud explosions in its wake until at 14 minutes and 28 seconds after seven o’clock local time, by which time it was around 5-10 kilometres above the ground, it exploded near the Tunguska River in Siberia releasing energy that has been conservatively estimated at 10 megatons and could have been as much as 20 megatons. The airburst felled around 80 million trees over an area of 2150 square kilometres and even now, a century after the blast, satellite imaging shows reduced tree cover in the area around ground zero. Curiously no trace of the object has ever been found, which has lead to speculation that it was a small comet rather than an asteroid (inevitably there have been suggestions of a more speculative nature such as black holes, antimatter and of course crashing UFOs). Fortunately, the region was largely uninhabited, and casualties were restricted to a dozen or so nomadic tribespeople who were slightly injured. But had the meteorite arrived 4 hours 52 minutes later, the city of St. Petersburg would have been totally destroyed, together with most of its inhabitants who at that time included one Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, later known as Lenin. Just a few hours, and the history of the 20th Century might have been very different!

In October 1937, Earth experienced an event we now know to be commonplace, but at the time caused some consternation when the news became public. The asteroid 1937 UB, later named Hermes, passed by at less than twice the distance of the Moon. Hermes was large enough to have caused a global disaster had it hit Earth. Hermes caused such a stir that it was given a name despite being lost after its close passage; it was not relocated until 2003 and is now known to comprise two 300-metre objects separated by just 1200 metres. It has also been calculated that it came even closer to Earth in 1942, but it was missed. At the time, of course, many astronomers would have been otherwise engaged.

In February 1947, a meteorite exploded just over two hundred miles from Vladivostok, detonating above the ground like the Tunguska object though in this case specimens from the fall were recovered. Although the explosive yield in this case was much less, it was still at least five times more powerful than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki eighteen months earlier.

Both the Siberian events took place over sparsely populated regions, but then on 10 August 1972 came a decidedly close call, when an asteroid approximately 10 metres in diameter entered Earth’s atmosphere above southern Utah. Travelling due north, it passed over Salt Lake City, before making its closest approach to Earth at an altitude of around 53 kilometres above Montana, where sonic booms were heard. Still travelling above escape velocity, the body then drew away, exiting the atmosphere over Canada.

Had it come a tiny fraction closer, it would have impacted with multi-megaton effect in the densely populated region between Provo, Utah and Idaho Falls. In the prevalent tensions of that era, and before the threat of meteorite strikes was fully appreciated, such an explosion could easily have been mistaken for a nuclear attack and triggered World War III.

Scientist had in fact been warning of the danger since the war, but they have been largely forgotten – few, for example, will have read the 1953 work Target Earth, by Allan Kelly and Frank Dachille, who advocated the use of rocket powered “tug boats” to deflect incoming meteorites. However in the 1980s the first concrete evidence of a meteoritic catastrophe on this planet began to emerge – albeit concerning events occurring millions of years before the dawn of mankind.

The sudden demise of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, had long been a mystery to science. Incidentally, it is worth pointing out a few common misconceptions about the dinosaurs. They were never contemporaries of man, despite suggestions to the contrary by one or two rather silly Hollywood motion pictures: they were not all large and ferocious, the majority being much smaller than a man: and finally, they certainly were not the stupid, blundering creatures of popular belief. They were the unchallenged rulers of the Earth for 150 million years. If mankind hopes to emulate the feat there is a long way to go.

In June 1980, the physicist Luis Alvarez, his son Walter and a number of other collaborators published a paper which claimed that a large meteorite had struck the Earth 65 million years ago, resulting in the extinction of the dinosaurs. The evidence for this claim was based on studies of a layer of clay, half an inch thick, laid down between two layers of limestone that had been seen in rocks near the town of Gubbio, in northern Italy. The clay was clearly located at the so-called K-T Boundary that delimits the Cretaceous and Tertiary geological time periods. There was no element of doubt; the limestone below the clay contained Cretaceous fossils; that above contained fossils from the Tertiary. It was at this point in time that the dinosaurs had become extinct.

The Alvarez team has originally intended to find out how long it had taken the clay to be deposited, because sudden though the transition from Cretaceous to Tertiary was, nobody believed it could have literally happened overnight. The method chosen was to measure the amount of iridium in the clay.

Iridium is one of the so-called “Splendid Six” group of metals, which also includes platinum, and is considerably rarer than gold. It is very rare in the Earth’s crust, but relatively abundant in meteorites. There is nothing mysterious about this. Because of the great density of these metals, much of the terrestrial supply has sunk right down to the Earth’s core. However, meteorites are formed from much smaller parent bodies in which the iridium is more evenly distributed.

A constant trickle of iridium reaches Earth all the time among the dust grains which constantly rain down from outer space as a result of micrometeorites entering the atmosphere. The rate of fall has been constant throughout geological time, the amount falling over, say, 100 years being the same now as it was 65 million years ago. This effect could be used to provide a “clock” to time how long it had taken the clay layer to form.

The Alvarez team had expected to find a small amount of iridium, consistent with, at most a time scale of 10,000 years to deposit the clay, which is what one would normally expect for a layer of its thickness. Instead, they found iridium concentrations were so high that if the “iridium clock” model were correct, it would have taken four million years for the clay to form.

This result was clearly nonsensical. Something else must have produced the anomalously high iridium levels and the only possible causative agent was a large meteorite, which had smashed into the Earth, spreading billions of tons of fine dust around the world comprising pulverised rock and debris from the meteorite itself. This fine dust eventually settled out of the atmosphere to produce a uniform layer of iridium-enriched clay all over the world. The shroud of dust, encircling the globe, would have cut off the light of the Sun and plunged the Earth into darkness. Plant life would have died off, unable to photosynthesise, and temperatures would have fallen. It was this “cosmic winter” that had killed off the dinosaurs.

One consequence of this discovery was the realisation that a “nuclear winter” would follow even a limited nuclear exchange. This led to the signing of several major arms treaties by the end of the 1980s and for a time there were genuine hopes that the madness of nuclear weapons might finally be eliminated. Sadly, these hopes seem to have been misplaced, with many states scrambling to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.

Like all radical scientific theories, the impact theory of the dinosaur extinction was slow to gain acceptance, especially from the palaeontologists who felt their territory had been invaded by a bunch of physicists and geologists. Some geologists put forward a rival theory, claiming that a series of volcanic eruptions occurring in India at the same point in time had been responsible. They argued that the volcanoes, spewing forth material from the bowels of the Earth, could have produced the iridium anomaly.

Meanwhile, the search was on for the “smoking gun”, the crater left by the impact. In 1990, a huge buried crater at Chicxulub, in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico came to the attention of scientists. The crater had been formed in what had then been shallow water and consequently was covered in a limestone layer. It had been discovered by industrial geologists in the 1970s, but they had kept quiet about their discovery because of the possibility of oil in the region. Using radioactive argon dating techniques, the scientists determined that the crater had been formed 65 million years ago – the time at which the dinosaurs disappear from the fossil record.

In the light of this evidence, the impact theory has now become widely accepted. A giant meteorite impact killed the dinosaurs, and indeed 70 percent of all species then existing on Earth. But what was disaster for the 70 percent was good news for the rest, including the tiny shrew-like mammals, which were able to fill all the vacant niches and diversify into the vast range of modern mammals, including ourselves, that now inhabit the Earth.

Interesting though all this was, it had all happened rather too long ago for the threat of a recurrence to be taken seriously by the general public, and what finally moved the danger from cosmic impacts onto the public agenda was a timely demonstration of just what such an impact could do. Fortunately, Nature was kind enough to arrange for the demonstration to take place at a safe distance from the Earth!

In 1993, a team of comet watchers comprising Carolyn Shoemaker, her husband Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy, observing at the Mount Palomar Observatory, discovered a peculiar cometary object subsequently named Shoemaker-Levy 9 (it was in fact the team’s ninth discovery). Shoemaker-Levy 9 resembled a string of beads strung out on the same orbit and once its orbit had been calculated, it was determined that it was the remains of a single comet that had passed so close to Jupiter the previous year it had not only been captured by the giant planet, it been torn apart by tidal forces during its close approach. Furthermore, it soon became clear that the cometary fragments were now on a collision course for Jupiter, with a series of impacts due to begin on 16 July 1994.

What followed is of course well-known. Although all the impacts occurred on the side of Jupiter not facing the Earth, the fireballs produced as the fragments rained down upon the giant planet billowed up to 2000 miles above the cloud-tops and were clearly observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. The impact sites, carried into view by Jupiter’s rapid rotation, showed that great dark scars had been produced. The dramatic photographs of the scars, stretched out across the face of the wounded planet convinced even the politicians the threat posed to Earth by such objects was very real, and even while the bombardment of Jupiter continued, the US House of Representatives passed a bill requiring NASA to submit to the Congress a costed proposal to chart all objects in Earth-crossing orbits larger than one kilometre in diameter. There were similar political initiatives in Europe, Russia and Australia.

Meanwhile, Hollywood wasted no time in leaping on the bandwagon, and in the late 1990s “meteorite movies” almost become a genre in their own right, though for the most part they were little better than the dire (and misnamed) Meteor, which was released in 1979. A scene from one such movie shows the inundation of New York by an impact-induced tsunami; ironically (in the light of later events) only the twin towers of the World Trade Center survive.

To implement a scheme to monitor space for hazardous objects, it was proposed to set up a global network of eight purpose-built telescopes. Six would have an aperture of 100 inches, and would be used to search for near-Earth objects. The other two, one in each hemisphere, would have an aperture of 200 inches and would be used to search for faint comets beyond the orbit of Jupiter.

By the end of the century a hazard scale for potentially threatening near-Earth objects had been devised. Known as the Torino Scale (named for Torino [Turin], Italy, where it was first proposed), it accesses a threat from 0 (no possibility of collision) through to 10 (the end is nigh). Threat level is based on both probability of a collision, and the consequences of that collision. The latter is obviously a function of the size of the threatening object.

What action could be taken if an asteroid was determined to be on a collision course? Simply blowing it up with a nuclear device would do no good – the fragments would still hit Earth with disastrous consequences, but given sufficient lead time, danger could still be averted by deflecting the threatening object. Two methods have been proposed. The first is to use the enormous velocity of such objects relative to the Earth to deflect them. By firing a large interceptor rocket into the path of one, the change of momentum so imparted would be sufficient to nudge it onto a new, harmless trajectory. With ten years warning, objects a mile in diameter could be so diverted. However, with only the same warning, much larger objects up to 20 miles in diameter could also be diverted by exploding one or more nuclear devices a short distance away, so as to vaporise the surface of one hemisphere. In this case, the expanding gases would act as a rocket motor and push the object away from the direction of the blast. With a century to react, even objects the size of a small moon could be turned aside.

Unfortunately, politicians being politicians, the initial enthusiasm for Project Spaceguard seems to have been lost: global warming seems to be the hot (pun intended) topic now. One sincerely hopes that the project does eventually come to fruition, because it is a matter of pure luck that no impact having global consequences has occurred during recorded history; and the respite can hardly be expected to continue forever. Inevitably, there has been speculation that such an impact did occur in late prehistoric time.

The idea isn’t new and the suggestion that astronomical events have caused global catastrophe within the last ten thousand years have been the subject of speculation for decades, though most of which is firmly in the realms of pseudo-science. The best known proponent of this view was Belarus-born Emmanuel Velikovsky, who had a number of very strange ideas, including the belief that Venus was a comet until just a few thousand years ago. In 1950, he published a book called Worlds in Collision in which he meticulously catalogued graphic accounts of global catastrophe as described in the Bible; the records of the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilisations; and Greek and Nordic mythology. Velikovsky’s approach was to assume that these myths and legends were literally true, and he sought to interpret them as being references to catastrophes caused by close encounters first with Venus and then Mars, occurring around 2000 BC and 800 BC. Worlds in Collision unleashed a storm of Salman Rushdie proportions in the scientific community, and there were even threats by some universities to boycott Velikovsky’s publishers unless the book was withdrawn. This ridiculous over-reaction only served to lend the book spurious credibility, with the result that it continues to find its way into pseudo-scientific speculations to the present day.

Velikovsky’s book is very readable and well-researched, and one wonders how many of his critics have ever actually taken the trouble to read it. That said there is no doubt that the theory he puts forward is the purest nonsense and suggests a near-total disregard for the laws of physics. Had Venus genuinely been on a collision course for Earth it would have taken rather more than a lightning bolt (as Velikovsky asserts) to avoid total annihilation; and had its influence halted the Earth’s spin the effects would not have been confined to the walls of Jericho.

Worlds in Collision didn’t even represent the full extent of Velikovsky’s bizarre theories and among the speculations that never made it into print was the idea that Earth had once been a satellite of Saturn, but a nova-like disturbance there had shifted our planet into its current orbit, producing Noah’s flood in the process; Jupiter was to blame for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and Mercury was somehow mixed up in the Tower of Babel.

Stephen Jay Gould makes what is probably the fairest comment on Velikovsky. In an essay entitled Velikovsky in Collision, he stated Velikovsky is neither crank nor charlatan — although to state my opinion and to quote one of my colleagues, he is at least gloriously wrong. But is the idea of a global catastrophe in Neolithic or Bronze Age times something we can completely dismiss?

In 1982 the British astronomers Victor Clube and William Napier proposed that large comets can from time to time end up in short-period orbits and wreak havoc in the inner Solar System. Over time a large object would break up and Earth would experience not just impact events but global cooling arising from meteoroidal dust building up in the atmosphere. The theory met with considerable scepticism at first but was widely quoted in the spate of books on the “meteorite menace” that appeared in the second half of the 1990s. Speculations in these books included the suggestion that the collapse of Mycenaean civilization towards the end the Bronze Age had been caused by an impact, an idea that certainly does deserve to be taken very seriously. However attempts to link more or less every myth and legend (including of course Atlantis) to meteorite impacts; and the suggestion by one author that Stonehenge was a Neolithic early-warning system, intended to look out for incoming meteorites; should serve as a reminder that there is a fine dividing line between informed speculation and pure hokum.

One possible reference to a prehistoric catastrophe is to be found in the Norse legend of Ragnarok, the end of the world, which tells of a world fire followed by the Fimbulvetr, a great winter lasting three years. This is startlingly suggestive of a meteoritic impact followed by a “cosmic winter” of the kind associated with the death of the dinosaurs.

But are the Norse legends, as compiled by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda, based on original material? Many have commented on the similarity between the opening of the Sixth Seal in the Book of Revelation and the Norse account of Fenris-Wolf devouring the sun. It has been pointed out that the Prose Edda was compiled from a Christian standpoint. Could the Ragnarok legend not simply be a rehash of the Biblical account of St. John the Divine?

In the early Thirteenth Century, the ancient Norse legends were becoming rather frowned upon because of the rise of Christianity in the Scandinavian countries and Snorri Sturluson decided to record these wonderful and now all too often neglected tales for posterity. It is true that he was a Christian, but the considered opinion is that he did not embellish the Ragnarok legend with Biblical material and that it is largely unaltered from its original form, and of independent origin. So could the Ragnarok legend be an account of real events?

The last Ice Age ended around 10,000 years ago, but the thaw set in some millennia previously. This was interrupted by an event known as the Younger Dryas occurring 12,700 years ago and lasting for 1,300 years. It has recently been suggested that this might have been the result of a meteorite impact near the North American Great Lakes. Of course the Norse legends are far more recent in origin – but it is possible that some elements have their origins in these events millennia early, just as the universal Flood mythology probably has its origins in the rise in sea levels that accompanied the end of the last Ice Age. However I have to say I am somewhat sceptical – I do feel that it is far more likely that the Younger Dryas was caused by freshwater running off from the melting North American ice sheets. This could have caused the Gulf Stream to cut off, bringing a temporary halt to the warming. If the Ragnarok legend does relate to actual events, possibly it is a description of a major volcanic eruption. This could also precipitate temporary global cooling, such as happened in 1815 after the eruption of Mount Tambora. One eruption that undoubtedly made its mark on prehistory is that of Thera in the Mediterranean around 1600 BC. This seems to have brought about the downfall of the original Minoan civilization on Crete and its absorption by the mainland-based Mycenaeans.

While it is possible that a major meteorite impact gave rise to some of the Norse legends, the evidence is sketchy and the idea of a late prehistoric impact still largely speculative, unlike the K-T Boundary event, which few now dispute was caused by a meteorite. What is not speculation is that the next major impact will occur one day. It may be a hundred millennia away or just a few days. Let us hope that the latter is not the case, for it may be many years before a proper early warning system is in place.

It seems to be human nature to react to tragedy rather than try to prevent it from happening in the first place. Less than a century ago, major transatlantic liners sailed quite legally with sufficient lifeboats to save only a fraction of those aboard should disaster strike. Today it is quite unthinkable that a ship should sail without lifeboats for all. The story of the Titanic is indelibly etched on mankind’s collective psyche. Unfortunately, the needless loss of human life has continued unabated. For example, it took the deaths of nearly two hundred football fans in three separate disasters in the 1980s before something was done about the medieval conditions in which enthusiasts were expected to follow their teams.

Even a small meteorite strike on a major city would pale all this into insignificance. The death toll would far exceed that of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, possibly running to tens or even hundreds of thousands. Even if a warning was given and there was sufficient time for the affected region to be evacuated, it is also worth considering the cultural heritage that would be lost should a meteorite land in the middle of Paris, Rome or any one of a dozen other European cities. The annihilation of the Louvre, the British Museum or the Hermitage would be a disaster comparable to the destruction of the Alexandria Library in antiquity.

Let us hope it does not come to that….

© Christopher Seddon 2007

Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author