The title of this post is borrowed from Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's book about an asteroid collision with Earth. Here's the blurb from the back of my paperback edition:
The chances that Lucifer's Hammer would hit the earth head-on were one in a million
Then one in a thousand
Then one in a hundred. And then...
I had a dream last night that I witnessed an asteroid impact. It was nothing like the visuals from the Deep Impact or Armageddon movies, which both show a nice wide shot of the impact, the splash, the atmospheric stripping etc.
My visuals were at night, from a human vantage point. That is, from the surface. I was looking out a window; it was night, very dark and clear. The asteroid was huge and perfectly spherical. (Actually, now that I think of it, it must have been the size of the moon.)
It drifted so quickly down towards us, getting larger and larger. I wasn't anywhere near ground zero, so when it was so close I could see the silvery, dusty craters on the surface, it passed behind the limb of the Earth and that was it. No flash no nothing. We waited.. About fifteen seconds after we lost sight of it, we felt the tremors, like a bad earthquake. I was in the middle of the 21/9/99 Taiwan quake (referred to in classic American style as "9-21".) so I know what a bad one feels like. We all knew we had only minutes until the internal resonances split the planet's crust and the entire atmosphere was stripped away in a burst of planetary decompression, but all we could feel was the wonder at witnessing such an historic event. Oh, how very literati!
Anyway, it was so vivid and it refreshed my remembered feelings of wonder at the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impacting with Jupiter 16-22 July 1994. Wow. I remember it described by a scientist on the BBC "The Solar System" doco series as words to the effect of:
We always think about the 'construction period' of the solar system as a chaotic time of ceaseless bombardment, red hot planetoids and random collisions. What we forget is that it's still happening!
Check out here for some good info on that impact. Anyway, there have been a couple of new solar system discoveries lately that are pretty cool.
First, they discovered a tenth planet! Well, this ain't so impressive because the definition of a planet is getting a bit vague. See they discovered this vast new asteroid belt in 1992-ish called the Kuiper Belt. It starts at the orbit of Neptune, 30 AU (I'll resist giving a definition for an AU) and extends out to about 50 AU. Since then they've realised that Pluto is really just one of those guys, but big enough to be called a planet. Well, actually, it was the first to be discovered (in 1930 I believe) and since the existence of the belt was not known at that time, it was logical to classify it as a planet. Now we kinda know better, but the name has stuck. The point is that there is a grey area between what is a 'small planet' and a 'big asteroid.' For example, check out this image comparing some planets and asteroids.
So they have been discovering tons of these Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) for over a decade. Of note were Quaoar (2002) and Sedna (2004), both of which are biggies and everyone wanted to claim them as Planet X. However, since the whole Pluto-the-Planetoid debacle, this lofty status has been officially withheld. Here's the rub, this year, they discovered "2003 UB313" which I have decided to name Tubby. Tubby is another big KBO, ho hum. The problem is it's bigger than Pluto. It kinda gets the 'planet' classification by default doesn't it? Or should we downgrade Pluto's status? Hmm. Well NASA already weighed in. They say Tubby is Planet X. Well done Michael Brown, Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz (So there's a n Anglican, a Catholic and a Jew...) The name is a whole other matter. It might be Persephone or Proserpina. And for those into astrology, Proserpine has been around for centuries anyway.
The other discovery that I reckon is pretty cool is actually a bit spooky. In a nerdy NASA kind of way. There’s a huge cloud or shell of icy comet like ‘dirty snowballs’ WAY out past the Kuiper Belt. Starting at something like 1000AU (or some such huge number) and extending for a light-year. Yes. A light-year. That’s right. One quarter of the way to the next star. Yes. That’s how big our solar system really is. The spooky part is after you get past the innies (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) and then the asteroid belt (and for the record, if you were in the asteroid belt, you wouldn’t be dodging rocks like the Millennium Falcon. Each individual asteroid is so far away from its neighbours you wouldn’t actually be able to see more than one at a time.) and then King Jupiter himself. Then the huge distances to the outies (Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) then way out into the vast unexplored Kuiper Belt with planet sized lumps in there like Pluto, Sedna and Tubby. Then here’s the spooky bit. The Oort Clout is WAY WAY out there. After you get out of the Kuiper Belt there’s this giant gap. Nothin’ out there. No sir. It’s a void. I love that word. Void. Then you’re in what an extra-solar visitor would be see as ‘the solar system’ – the ruddy big cloud of snowballs that may or may not be named after some guy called Oort. Spooky void. What a nerd!
Anyway, to bring things back down to Earth – I have no bed. All gone. I’m sleeping on a mattress on the floor. For at least two weeks. I feel like a squatter. I guess I’ll light a campfire on the floor in the living room and boil me some old boot tea.
And dream about the void.