Death from above may or may not be hurtling toward you at any given moment. And no, not the Canadian rock sensation Death From Above — actual, life-ending matter careening through space on a collision course with your face.
Current estimates suggest that anywhere from 37,000 to 78,000 tons of matter fall from space to Earth’s surface each year. While most of that matter is dust-sized and unlikely to do damage to any but those with space allergies, some of it it has the potential to wipe out the planet in the sort fiery cataclysm witnessed only in B-rated sci-fi action flicks starring white dudes.
In the next 100 or so years, any of the following objects could tumble to Earth’s surface in a shower of death and destruction—or, at the very least, a shower of frustrating commutes and under-caffeination while traffic is diverted around impact craters and everyone misses their window to stop for pumpkin spice lattes before work. And really, isn’t that the real worry?
Currently orbiting Earth at an average speed of 175,000 miles per hour are 500,000 bits of fatality we lovingly call “space junk.” This term encompasses everything from manmade pieces of broken spacecrafts and satellites to naturally occurring chunks of meteoroids.
As it were, there are actually millions of particles of space junk in orbit, but we only track things larger than a marble. You might think that sounds safe and reasonable, until you realize that even something as small and untrackable as a fleck of paint can be significantly dangerous, as was the case with the International Space Station and one unlucky window. But who needs windows? They only, like, are necessary to pressurize the craft and protect astronauts from the yawning vacuum of space or whatever. No big deal.
Despite some 20,000 softball-or-larger sized lumps of space trash out there among the millions of bits, the danger is less that space junk will crash into Earth, and more that space junk will crash into something else in orbit that will THEN crash to Earth. This interactive timeline of space debris shows us just how much crap is floating around up there (some of it literal crap — all that astronaut poop has to go somewhere), and in turn how delicately spacecrafts and satellites must maneuver this debris field to avoid certain plummeting, explosion-ridden death.
Speaking of satellites, they literally fall out of the sky sometimes. Go ahead and add that to your list of reasons to live underground; I’ll wait.
Back? Great. Now here’s some good news: The same logic we apply to white-knuckling the armrests of economy flights — ”You’re more likely to die in a car crash, you’re more likely to die in a car crash,” muttered through gritted teeth during a turbulent takeoff — holds true for satellites. The odds of being struck by a falling satellite are one in several trillion; in comparison, the likelihood of being injured in a car accident increases by a factor of 27 million. Just don’t be a Bad Luck Brian, and you’ll probably be fine. Or, you know, hit by something else hurtling through space. Either way.
While the polls might heartily endorse Giant Meteor 2016, the reality would be only slightly less destructive for humankind than a Trump presidency. Remember when dinosaurs existed and then didn’t? Yeah, that was almost certainly an asteroid.
The danger of an asteroid impact isn’t limited to those poor souls in the radius of its future crater, although that also sucks. As was the case with the dinosaurs, the danger is more in the widespread weather effects of a giant celestial body ripping through Earth’s atmosphere and puncturing its tender soil skin (its “terradermis,” if you will). Floods, fires, and other apocalyptic events are just a few of the fun friends asteroids bring when (literally) crashing the party.
NASA’s Asteroid Watch program currently keeps track of these potential death threats. If you suffer from anxiety-ridden insomnia, you… well, probably shouldn’t be reading this article at all. What’s wrong with you? But, since you’re already here, heed some advice not to visit that site in your pre-bed browsing.
Entire Space Stations
How do you stop an allegedly out-of-control space station? You don’t, apparently. …*ba-dum-tss*?
China’s rumored-to-be-rogue Tiangong-1 space station just might be one such example that is on track to fall from the sky sometime in 2017. Where it will fall and how much destruction and/or death it will cause upon re-entry is currently unknown, especially if the rumors of China having lost control of the station turn out to be true. In any event, Good Guy Earth’s Atmosphere is expected to melt most of the station, but some pieces (like entire rocket engines) may remain largely intact and ground-bound. Comforting!
On the less tangible side of space threats are the sun’s nebulous solar flares. Basically, a solar flare is a large eruption of high-energy radiation from the sun that can seriously fuck shit up if it reaches Earth. A powerful enough solar flare can cause a geomagnetic storm in Earth’s atmosphere, which in turn disrupts radio communications, causes widespread electrical outages, and other #funnotfun things. Yet more terrifying, should a solar flare knock out radio communications while spacecrafts and satellites are in orbit… well, see Hurtling Death Items #2 and #4.
Fortunately, death by solar flare would likely be accompanied by some magnificent sunsets. In 1859, a solar flare and subsequent geomagnetic storm surprised scientists with a brilliant display of aurorae in skyscapes all over the globe. Not the worst way to go as far as death from above is concerned; at least it would be Instagram-worthy! #sunset #pretty #solarflare #fire #motivationmonday #determinationdoomsday #lastmoments #imminentdeath #tellmymomiloveher
And there you have it, the worst of the millions of bits comprising some 78,000 tons of (occasionally literal) space crap with the potential to bombard Earth with flying death in the next 100 or so years! What fun.
What can we take from this? Well, for starters, when building your underground anti-death-from-above bunker, be sure to dig deep enough that an impact crater can’t reach you. Or floodwaters. Or molten lava. Or hostile aliens hitching a ride on any of the aforementioned debris. You know, on second thought, maybe just build it in space. And make sure it’s far away from Earth’s debris field, where no one can hear you smug.