For most of human history, we were extremely vulnerable to extinction. As early as 70,000 years ago, mitochondrial DNA evidence suggests our population dropped to a few thousand breeding pairs. With a population that small, and a home base in East Africa smaller than most modern countries, many natural disasters could have easily wiped us out. A tsunami, a hurricane, a volcano (or super volcano), an earthquake, a disease outbreak, a drought, or even animal competition could have ended the human experiment.
Of course we are not as vulnerable today as we were 70,000 years ago. Our population has ballooned to 7 billion and we inhabit nearly all-terrestrial niches on the planet. We are an interconnected global faunal hegemony the likes of which have never been seen before on our planet. However, the great astronomer Carl Sagan still worried. He said that theoretical future humans would “marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential, once was.”
This week theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku tried to make our vulnerability apparent. He wrote an article for Newsweek titled “Asteroid Apocalypse.” Within it he explores our recent history of asteroid encounters, including our near miss with DA14 (an apartment sized asteroid that grazed Earth last week). An Asteroid the size of DA14 is what Dr. Kaku calls a “city buster,” capable of wiping out an entire metropolis if they hit in the right area. However, he warns that in our solar system there are asteroids far larger, like the asteroid Apophis, which is on a trajectory near-Earth and could strike our planet with as much force as 1,000 Hiroshima bombs.
Luckily for us, it appears as though Apophis will miss Earth in 2029 and 2036. NASA scientists have calculated that there is only a 1 in 140,000,000 chance of a collision.
Dr. Kaku is definitely not wrong to warn us of the asteroid dangers in our solar system. There are over 8,000 known near-Earth asteroids, and probably several thousand more that we are currently unaware of. It is important that everyone knows and understands the dangers that these asteroids pose to our civilization and our species. But from what we know, there is nothing on a collision course with Earth that poses any serious threat of an apocalypse. Apophis will not bring darkness and chaos, like the Egyptian god it is named after. Instead, Apophis represents a great way for us to learn different asteroid-deflection methods so that we are prepared for one that is actually on a collision course with our planet.
In my mind, all of this information leads me to conclude that after our tests with Apophis, we will be able to knock another threat off our list of extinction concerns. If we are able to alter the future trajectory of Apophis, it stands to reason that we would be able to do the same with any future asteroid that was actually on a collision course with our planet.
I know the title “Asteroid Apocalypse” is just a product of sensationalist journalism, but it is also irresponsible misinformation. Current data indicate that if apocalypse ever comes, it will not likely be from the skies. After all, we inhabit an enviable area of space-time in the quiet suburbs of the Milky Way.