the earth plows through tons of meteors each day -- 1/17/18

Today's selection -- from Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Contrary to what people commonly assume, space is far from empty:

"From a distance, our solar system looks empty. If you enclosed it within a sphere -- one large enough to contain the orbit of Neptune, the outermost planet -- then the volume occupied by the Sun, all planets, and their moons would take up a little more than one-trillionth the enclosed space. But it's not empty, the space between the planets contains all manner of chunky rocks, pebbles, ice balls, dust, streams of charged particles, and far-flung probes. The space is also permeated by monstrous gravi­tational and magnetic fields.

"Interplanetary space is so not-empty that Earth, during its 30 kilometer-per-second orbital journey, plows through hundreds of tons of meteors per day -- most of them no larger than a grain of sand. Nearly all of them burn in Earth's upper atmosphere, slamming into the air with so much energy that the debris vaporizes on contact. Our frail species evolved under this protective blanket. Larger, golf-ball-size meteors heat fast but unevenly, and often shatter into many smaller pieces before they vaporize. Still larger meteors singe their surface but otherwise make it all the way to the ground intact. You'd think that by now, after 4.6 billion trips around the Sun, Earth would have 'vacuumed' up all possible debris in its orbital path. But things were once much worse. For a half-billion years after the formation of the Sun and its planets, so much junk rained down on Earth that heat from the persistent energy of impacts rendered Earth's atmosphere hot and our crust molten.

"One substantial hunk of junk led to the formation of the Moon. The unexpected scar­city of iron and other higher-mass elements in the Moon, derived from lunar samples returned by Apollo astronauts, indicates that the Moon most likely burst forth from Earth's iron-poor crust and mantle after a glancing collision with a wayward Mars-sized proto­planet. The orbiting debris from this encoun­ter coalesced to form our lovely, low-density satellite. Apart from this newsworthy event, the period of heavy bombardment that Earth endured during its infancy was not unique among the planets and other large bodies of the solar system. They each sustained similar damage, with the airless, erosionless surfaces of the Moon and Mercury preserving much of the cratered record from this period.

"Not only is the solar system scarred by the flotsam of its formation, but nearby interplan­etary space also contains rocks of all sizes that were jettisoned from Mars, the Moon, and Earth by the ground's recoil from high-speed impacts. Computer studies of meteor strikes demonstrate conclusively that surface rocks near impact zones can get thrust upward with enough speed to escape the body's gravitational tether. At the rate we are discovering meteor­ites on Earth whose origin is Mars, we conclude
that about a thousand tons of Martian rocks rain down on Earth each year. Perhaps the same amount reaches Earth from the Moon. In retrospect, we didn't have to go to the Moon to retrieve Moon rocks. Plenty come to us, although they were not of our choosing and we didn't yet know it during the Apollo program.

"Most of the solar system's asteroids live and work in the main asteroid belt, a roughly flat zone between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. By tradition, the discoverers get to name their asteroids whatever they like. Often drawn by artists as a region of cluttered, meander­ing rocks in the plane of the solar system, the asteroid belt's total mass is less than five per­cent that of the Moon, which is itself barely more than one percent of Earth's mass. Sounds insignificant. But accumulated perturbations of their orbits continually create a deadly sub­set, perhaps a few thousand, whose eccentric paths intersect Earth's orbit. A simple calcula­tion reveals that most of them will hit Earth within a hundred million years. The ones
larger than about a kilometer across will col­lide with enough energy to destabilize Earth's ecosystem and put most of Earth's land species at risk of extinction.

"That would be bad."



Neil deGrasse Tyson


Astrophysics for People in a Hurry


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2017 by Neil deGrasse Tyson


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