Asteroid Day 2016: Be Prepared, Houston, on June 30

Houston: In addition to on-the-regular flooding and hurricane risks, you may have another natural disaster to worry about.


Ginormous asteroids have nailed Texas in the past. There’s a 13-kilometer-diameter impact crater centered around the Sierra Madera Mountains in west Texas. The Odessa Meteor Crater is a collection of five craters that were produced by an iron asteroid. And the Marquez Crater, which isn’t exposed at the surface, sprawls for about 12.7 kilometers in a desolate area of Leon County.

Though some of these craters are more than one million years old, devastating asteroid impacts remain a real thing. For example, NASA, earlier this month, detected a small asteroid over Arizona. It happened to explode before reaching Earth.

Dr. David A. Kring, of the Houston-based Universities Space Research Association’s Lunar and Planetary Institute, has calculated the effects of the most famous asteroid impact event – the Barringer Meteorite Crater (or Meteor Crater) in northern Arizona – if it had instead pulverized Houston.

According to Lunar and Planetary Institute calculations, if a 160-foot-wide asteroid, traveling at 45,000 miles per hour, were to make a 20-megaton impact in central Houston, there would be a six-mile fireball, a pressure pulse and air blast up to 15 miles, and winds up to 25 miles per hour.

“The Chelyabinsk [Russia] impact air burst of February 15, 2013, was a recent reminder that the threat of impacting asteroids is real. That event damaged over 7,000 buildings and injured over 1,600 people,” says Kring. “The asteroid that produced the Chelyabinsk impact air burst was approximately 20 meters in diameter, producing a blast with the energy equivalent to about 500 kilotons of TNT.”

While Kring was a graduate student at Harvard, he helped Dr. Ursula Marvin with an annual public event at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that recognized the June 30, 1908, anniversary of the Tunguska impact air blast, which flattened nearly 800 square miles of forest in the East Siberian taiga ecoregion. For Kring, it was sort of an unofficial Asteroid Day, an anniversary that became more official last year.

“Over the past couple of decades, I have often (albeit not every year) given public lectures about the geologic history of impacting asteroids and future hazards,” says Kring. “Last year, quite independently of my lectures, an international group decided to promote the day as Asteroid Day and list my own lectures, like that at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, among the day’s activities. Thus, while I have been marking the event for many years, the concept of ‘Asteroid Day’ was only born last year.”

For Asteroid Day 2016 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Kring will talk about the Tunguska, Chelyabinsk and Meteor Crater episodes as well as the Chicxulub Crater (which is now buried underneath the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico) of 65 million years ago that “extinguished dinosaurs,” says Kring.

Kring will also discuss planetary defense, which includes diligent sky surveillance. “The astronomical community has successfully located the largest, most hazardous asteroids, but there are perhaps 20 million Chelyabinsk-size objects, and only 500 have been located thus far,” says Kring.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 30, David Kring, Ph.D., of the Lunar and Planetary Institute will present the lecture “Asteroid Day 2016 – Threat of Impact Update” during the Houston Museum of Natural Science Distinguished Lecture Series. HMNS is located at 5555 Hermann Park Drive. Tickets cost $12 to $18. Call 713-639-4629 or go to hmns.org. 
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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen