The Tunguska near miss shows how close we are to complete catastrophe

Image by alin b. | Bigstockphoto

Tunguska is remote. It is an area in the East of Siberia that is, by current definitions, almost entirely uninhabited. Yet on 30 June 1908 it became famous when something exploded so violently that it flattened 80 million trees across an area of more than 2,000 kilometres. Three people were thought to have died.

It was long thought that the Tunguska explosion was caused by an air burst from a meteorite just 100 metres across. There was no crater from the event, so the conventional wisdom says that it did not actually make contact.

In other words, the Tunguska explosion was made by the bow wave of a small piece of rock that, had it been travelling a degree higher or lower would have hit us with such force as to cause who knows how much damage. There is, of course, speculation and we can assume it would have, at best, thrown us into darkness for a long time and possibly been a ‘dinosaur’ event. Take the bow wave from a supersonic jet and multiply that by many, many times.

Thinking about what would have happened if the Tunguska near miss was over a major city makes the hair stand up on your neck.

We know that but for the presence of the enormous Jupiter, we would be under constant attack, yet some asteroids and other heavenly bodies still get past its orbit and become dangerous, as the asteroids the last month demonstrate. These objects burnt up in the atmosphere, which prevented anything as disastrous as a Tunguska event.

Yet things so small as to be almost theoretical are potentially as dangerous, and interesting.

In 2016, a particle so small and flimsy hit something else in the ice of the Antartic with the force of over 6,000 mosquitoes. This does not sound much, perhaps like someone throwing a baseball through a greenhouse but this event, only recently reported after much analysis, produced a force equivalent to 450 times the force that an upgraded Large Hadron Collider should be able to produce later this year.

All of this demonstrates how flimsy and vulnerable we really are, how close we live to Tunguska type events. It is only a matter of time when matter and antimatter meet on or near the Earth and it is ‘Goodbye and Thanks for All the Fish’.

That said, how extraordinary would it be if we could produce and harness a force even close to that neutrino, as some scientists are beginning to believe is theoretically possible.

If that is the case, our first starship might be called Tunguska One and not the Enterprise as our history books tell us at the moment.

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