The idea that humanity will be wiped out by a meteorite was recently popularized in the film “Don’t Look Up!” But how likely is this to happen? The answer, disturbingly, is perhaps more likely than we previously thought. Why? Because scientists have recently discovered giant indestructible space cushions.
Let’s back up a little: What is a giant space cushion? Giant space cushions, or as they are more commonly known, “rubble pile asteroids,” are asteroids made up of lots of fragments of other rocky asteroids that have been destroyed through collision. And it’s only in the last five years or so that scientists have realized just how abundant they are. They are very abundant, and what’s more, because they are essentially smashed up bits of rocky asteroids, they can be very small -- too small to spot easily from Earth. This creates a bit of a problem for us if we don’t want to face the same ending as the dinosaurs.
So, are rubble pile asteroids easy to destroy? The short answer is no. Scientist Fred Jourdan and colleagues have recently shown that, in fact, rubble pile asteroids are extremely hard to destroy. They took several grains of dust collected from the 535-meter-long rubble pile asteroid Itokawa, and used a Thermo Scientific™ Argus VI ™Static Vacuum Noble Gas Mass Spectrometer to determine the age of the asteroid. What they found was that the asteroid was 4.2 billion years old, almost as old as the solar system! They attribute the long survival time to the shock-absorbent nature of the rubble pile asteroids. Because they are super porous, when they are impacted, they squash rather than break up, much like a giant space cushion. This makes them extremely hard to destroy.
So there you have it, giant space cushions that are seemingly indestructible. So the next time you are staring into the abyss wondering how humanity will be wiped out, you can add giant space cushions to your list. Thanks, science!
Read the paper here.
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