“So, what’s new?” I asked Jorge during a long lag in conversation.
My friend exclaimed that he could hardly wait for the Swift-Tuttle comet to arrive in our part of the Solar System.
Jorge said, the comet wouldn’t be here until 2126.
I replied that both of us will be long dead and gone by that time. Then we shared a macabre laugh. Then I asked why my friend was so eager for Swift-Tuttle’s return.
He answered that all the hype surrounding the total Solar eclipse that’s going to happen next Monday the 21st got him to thinking about comets and asteroids and the worrisome things they could do if they approach too closely to Earth.
I replied that the only thing I’m worried about is that the sky might be overcast that day and I’ll be stuck watching it second-hand on the Web.
Jorge agreed that he had the same concern, then he steered the conversation back to comets and asteroids. My pal looked into the significance of the comet that last appeared in 1992. At that time, it was visible with binoculars.
Anyway, in the summer of 1862 (July 16th), at the height of the American Civil War, astronomer Lewis Swift noticed a comet. A few days later, Union Navy officer Horace Tuttle spotted the same comet. The comet progressed along its orbit, at it’s peak, the comet tail stretched to almost 30-degrees of the night sky. Eventually the object was named 109P/Swift-Tuttle.
I noted that it is the tail dust of that comet that causes the Perseid meteor shower that’s happening around this time of year. So, there is a lot going on in the sky this month.
Jorge did his homework about Swift-Tuttle. The comet’s nucleus is 27-kilometres (16.7 miles) in diameter. The asteroid or comet that is suspected of causing the great extinction event that took place 65,000,000 years ago was estimated to be 10-kilometres (6.2 miles) in diameter.
Swift-Tuttle’s last pass near Earth in 1992 had been miscalculated by 17 days. This variance means Earth’s distance from the comet can be closer or farther depending on the error. That means if the latest calculation of Swift-Tuttle’s orbit is off by 15-days, the big comet could collide with the Moon or Earth. If it hits here, life on Earth could be snuffed out. Hopefully the calculations are correct. This gives a one in a million chance that the comet will hit the Moon or Earth.
Whenever comets or asteroids are predicted to pass close to Earth, conspiracy theorists and other noteworthy people fear that the end of civilization is near. You may remember last year’s failed prediction by Pastor Ricardo Salazar from the Global Church of the King of Israel. He predicted that an asteroid would smash into Earth in order to cause doomsday and bring about the Anti-Christ.
Even Dr. Stephen Hawking has speculated about an asteroid impacting our planet. He says this would pose a major threat to all lifeforms on Earth. Hawking tempers his concern by saying he thinks any such disaster would take place thousands of years into the future.
Jorge said he has read that NASA believes there is an extremely remote chance that an asteroid could hit Earth on September 28th this year. If that happens, we are not equipped to divert it away from us. Life would be wiped out. Not to worry though, because nearly all the experts say that future flybys will not cause us any actual concern.
Meanwhile, there is still the big Solar Eclipse and Nebraska is one of the places for optimum observation of the phenomenon. The path cuts across the state from the southeast to the northwest. If the weather forecast calls for sunny skies I will drive to Grand Island or Crete to witness the event in person. If I was really clever, I’d take the time to visit Carhenge near Alliance, Nebraska mid-day, next Monday.