Black Holes and Asteroids

powPowehi is the recently (and only) named photographed supermassive black hole. Not to be confused with the song by Muse, Powehi was photographed after 10 years of work by 200 researchers.

“The supermassive black hole has a mass that is 6.5 billion times that of our sun.” I both know and don’t know what that means. I understand the concept broadly, but specifically? Not so much. In addition to being “distance challenged,” in that I can’t tell you how far it is in feet or yards or meters between my front door and mailbox, I cannot calculate, or more specifically, imagine, mass of that magnitude. To this English major, E=MC2 is more poetry than formula.

But there is a realistic intersection between advanced science and poetic imagination. Challenged as I may be in physics, I am fascinated by time, space, and the universe. I don’t believe our planet contains the only “life” forms in the universe, and heaven is too big to be an earth-bound religious concept. I’m on board with a little “c” “creator” that is beyond our imagination, and I hope I live at least until 2029 when 99942 Apophis graces us with its orbit.

 Written in 2007, I include a 2019 update on Apophis, a fascinating asteroid that I hope will spark your imagination, too.

Amoebas, Asteroids, and Life on Other Planets

NASA calls it 99942 Apophis, and while it’s been downgraded to a still-frightening one in 45,000 chance of impact in 2036, this asteroid fascinates me.

In Egyptian mythology, Apophis was the ancient spirit of evil and destruction, a demon that was determined to plunge the world into eternal darkness. The odds of the Apophis asteroid hitting Earth are about the same as hitting a hole-in-one in golf or being hit by a car while walking – things that happen every day and to people you know – so I’m hoping someone sends Bruce Willis to space to fix this problem soon, although humans will probably blow up this planet long before that asteroid.

I never took a physics course, and other than watching “Space 1999” and every incarnation of “Star Trek,” I’m not really a science fiction buff either. I’m fascinated by space exploration because I’m fascinated by our connectedness with the universe. We can’t possibly be all that’s alive out there.

Take the newly discovered, possibly life-friendly planet outside our galaxy called 581 c, which sounds more like a tax form than an interplanetary object.

“Liquid water is critical to life as we know it,” co-author Xavier Delfosse of Grenoble University in France, said in a statement. “Because of its temperature and relative proximity, this planet will most probably be a very important target of the future space missions dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. On the treasure map of the Universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X.”

Other astronomers cautioned it’s too early to tell whether there is water.

“You need more work to say it’s got water or it doesn’t have water,” said retired NASA astronomer Steve Maran, press officer for the American Astronomical Society. “You wouldn’t send a crew there assuming that when you get there, they’ll have enough water to get back.”

NASA also shouldn’t assume that an intelligent life form would let an exploration crew get back. “They” might be pissed off by the intrusion. Or if we sent a probe first rather than a human crew, what if it arrived on 581 c and some kid found it in his backyard and brought it to his basement and no one there ever knew we tried to make contact?

All told, though, we probably need to find another planet to live on if we keep screwing up the one we’ve been given. Mark Morford, a SF Gate columnist, wrote a snarky, thoughtful column, as he always does, on the fate of the honey bee and its connection to the fate of humankind. A quick quote: “See, the sweet, sticky ontological truth is nature doesn’t really give a damn whether our species lives or dies. It is very possible that we are not nearly as essential or significant as we like to believe. Though I imagine if nature had her druthers, she might very well choose to eliminate us like a bad dream and let the honeybees and the ants and the trees and the whales take over.”

Science is based on evidence, not belief, and I’m looking forward to the day when evidence reveals that the tiniest one-cell amoeba existed or exists on another planet. That would tie the Kansas Board of Education’s underwear in a knot, wouldn’t it? It would certainly expand the field of theology. It’s about time for a new debate about “creation” in that stale field of the study of big G god. Because like it or not, humans, you, me, amoebas, asteroids, honey bees, DNA, and extraterrestrial children hiding space probes in their basements – everything in this universe – is connected, and we need to find a way to play nice.

 2019 Update: According to an article published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, Vol. 618, September 2018: “The asteroid will pass at a distance of 38,400 km, roughly six radii, from Earth’s centre, on April 13, 2029. Although first calculations showed that Apophis could be a potential impactor on our planet during this event, the catastrophic hypothesis was gradually, then definitely rejected with more and more constrained and refined calculations.” I think what they’re trying to say is, it won’t be Apophis that destroys Earth in 10 years. That may well enough be us.  

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