Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst.
The recent fall of a meteor over Russia, which injured more than a thousand people, has captured news headlines and came unexpectedly as the world watched a more distant and benign asteroid fly past earth.
While such events are fairly rare, they do have strategic and political implications.
The wild claims by a Russian fringe politician that the meteor was actually an American weapon gained little traction, but point to some underlying tensions. Meteor airbursts and impacts mimic some of the physical effects of nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, there was a quiet fear among some scientists that a natural impact could be mistaken for a nuclear attack, and could provoke retaliation.
Then there's the question of protecting earth from natural cosmic attacks. Although astronomical surveys of asteroids are ongoing, most objects that could pose a potential risk to earth are undiscovered. Like sniper's bullets, they could strike anywhere without warning. The meteor that hit Russia was undetected before it entered the atmosphere. Finding these objects is not easy. Most are too small to be seen by normal telescopes.
Then there's the question of how to respond to a potential threat.
Most governments have simply ignored the risks posed by meteor impacts. Prior to the recent Russian incident, the only catastrophic event was the infamous Tunguska event of 1908, when a larger meteor exploded over Siberia, flattening forests and possibly claiming lives. The placing of these two events in the same country is mainly chance, but it's also a result of the vast geography of Russia.
Having only two events in roughly a century looks fairly minor when compared to the devastation of more earthly disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. So should we take the threat of meteor impacts more seriously? We probably deserve to look at the subject more closely, as the next potential impact could be more catastrophic. A small impact on a city could claim hundreds of thousands of lives. A large impact in an ocean could trigger a tsunami.
We will probably witness a short-lived boost in support for scientific research in this area, which will be welcome to the world's cash-starved scientific community. Meteorites can represent a threat to the world at large, yet the financial burden for protecting the earth has been disproportionately borne by certain industrialised countries with advanced space and astronomy programs. Australia's contributions to this work should be acknowledged, and deserves reinforcement. Questions are already being raised about unequal support for a common global problem. Exactly how these questions will be resolved remains unclear.
Work on deflecting or destroying potential cosmic bullets is ongoing, and has produced novel ideas such as hitting asteroids (large rocks in space which become meteors when they enter the atmosphere) with paintballs. This would affect their reflectivity of sunlight and change their trajectories. Other solutions are more violent.
The nature of the next catastrophe remains as unclear as humanity's muddled response to this threat.