With the Delta Aquarid meteor shower going on right now, and the crowd-favourite Perseid meteor shower hot on its heels, the next few weeks are going to be the prime time to watch some shooting stars light up the night sky.
But while dust-sized bits of comets sizzling through our atmosphere put on a pretty awesome show, the consequences of Earth confronting one of these comets head on could actually be pretty disastrous.
It’s not something that you should be worried about, of course. NASA is on the lookout for any cosmic objects on a crash course with our planet, and they have found that the chances of us colliding with a comet or asteroid anytime soon are virtually zero.
It’s still pretty interesting to think about though. What would happen if one of these ancient, celestial chunks of ice, dust, and rock smacked into our planet?
The 16-mile wide Swift-Tuttle comet — the progenitor of the Perseid meteor shower — hurtles through space at about 36 miles per second, more than 150 times the speed of sound.
If a comet of this size struck Earth, the energy of the impact would be about 300 times that of the asteroid that scientists believed wiped out the dinosaurs, Donald Yeomans, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told LiveScience.
And the size of a comet or asteroid isn’t the only thing to consider with cosmic collisions. While the impact of the comet would be pretty darn destructive, the brunt of the damage would come from the gases it released in Earth’s atmosphere.
“Sulphur dioxide would initially cause cooling, and then carbon dioxide would lead to long-term warming,” LiveScience writes. “An event like this would likely cause the planet’s climate to change drastically, leading to mass extinctions around the globe.”
A comet colliding with Earth wouldn’t necessarily signal mass extinctions and the end of human civilisation though.
While a comet landing smack dab in the ocean could trigger earthquakes and tsunamis, its atmospheric effects would actually be eased by the ocean. Considering 70 per cent of Earth is covered in ocean, our odds aren’t terrible.
But let’s hope we don’t have to roll the dice anytime soon.
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