Moby Dick Is Missing

Moby Dick is indeed missing, but it’s the asteroid, not the Herman Melville book, which, I have to confess, I could never get around to finishing, one of the handful of novels I chose not to struggle through… and considering how many bad novels I’ve had to read over my career, I think that says something.  The asteroid Moby Dick [asteroid 2000 EM26], a chunk of rock some 270 meters long, was supposed to show up sometime last month roughly 2 million miles from Earth… and didn’t.

The fact that telescopes couldn’t find it doesn’t mean that aliens exploded it or that it disintegrated, but that either astronomers didn’t calculate its orbit correctly when it was discovered in 2002 or that various gravitational forces nudged it into a different orbit.  What’s troubling about this is that the “failure to appear” is indicative of our vulnerability to large objects colliding with Earth.  A piece of rock roughly the size of a WWII cruiser falling to Earth doesn’t sound that catastrophic to most people, but most people don’t understand the results produced when even comparatively small chunks of rock slam into the planet.

The Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russia a little over a year ago with a force of 500 kilotons [some 30 times more powerful than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima] was much smaller than Moby Dick, only some 20 meters across, but it injured some 1,500 people seriously enough to require medical treatment and damaged over 7,000 buildings – all from the effects of a shock wave that began more than 20 kilometers away high in the atmosphere. That’s what a comparatively small chunk of rock did after hitting the Earth’s atmosphere at more than 40,000 miles per hour.

In 1908, another object, either a comet or a small asteroid, exploded above the Tunguska River in Siberia, flattening some 80 million trees over an area of 800 square miles, and, of course, there is also the Chicxulub Crater at the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula – a crater 110 miles in diameter formed 65 million years ago when a bolide six miles in diameter struck the earth at 40,000 miles per hour.  Scientists have calculated that the impact would have released two million times more energy than the most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated, broiling the earth’s surface, igniting wildfires worldwide and plunging Earth into darkness as debris filled clouded the atmosphere. Some suggest this was the event that led to the end of the dinosaurs.  Whether it did or not, such an impact today would effectively destroy pretty much all human societies and their infrastructure.

But for all the suggestions and warnings, what have we done?  Not nearly enough.  Not anywhere close to all the near-Earth asteroids and other objects capable of impacting Earth have been discovered and followed, and we certainly haven’t developed the capability to deflect even moderate sized rocks.  In the meantime, the financial industry spends tens of millions of dollars to execute securities trades in nanoseconds in order to make billions through sheer speculation.


5 thoughts on “Moby Dick Is Missing”

  1. Ed Biggins says:

    I must admit that it’s refreshing to hear someone else say that reading “Moby Dick” is a struggle. (I could never bring myself to finish it either)

    As for space object tracking, I have to say that I agree with the belief that we should be actively tracking every object in orbit, both around Earth, and in our solar system. The only problem is that even if we knew of an object that was on a collision course with Earth, we have no reliable way to interdict or redirect an object at this time, despite our technical sophistication. One would think the human race could collectively plan and implement some kind of strategy to avoid an event that could be grave enough to cause extinction, or at the very least, cause enough damage to kill millions or billions of our species.

    Of course, any system potent enough to annihilate or damage large rocky objects in space could also be used to cause major damage terrestrially. It’s hard to fathom what entity besides the USA could be trusted with that much power. Then there are the “golds” to be considered. That would be a tough sell politically to most people, never mind how astute it might be. (“Seward’s Icebox” comes to mind) Let’s face it: We can’t even find a way to fund another trip to the moon or Mars. This may well be a case where one of the greatest strengths of the human race, diversity, is also one of its greatest weaknesses. I can’t fathom, in today’s political climate, how anyone could build enough consensus to put a program into place to provide defense against asteroids or other space-based objects. If this topic wasn’t so potentially tragic it might make for an entertaining story, kind of like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but without the happy ending.

  2. Ed Biggins says:

    PS I’M aware of NORAD’s tracking abilities, but it’s questionable just how much of a warning NORAD could even provide. -They do have an excellent “Santa Tracker” though.

  3. JakeB says:

    I just want to say that I loved “Moby Dick”, and read it in three days. I’ll add that it was a couple of years after I got out of college and realized I could read whatever I wanted and didn’t have to finish it if I didn’t want to. Seems to make all the difference for me.

    1. It all goes to show that we all have different tastes, and those tastes are not just a matter of intellect or educational background.

      1. JakeB says:

        Indeed, de gustibus non est disputandum.

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