A GUIDE FOR THE INDEPENDENT TRAVELER IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
"With the completion of the Interstate Freeway System, it became possible to travel all the way across the country, from coast-to-coast, and never see a thing...." Charles Kuralt
METEOR CRATER...IT HAPPENED HERE, IT'S GONNA' HAPPEN AGAIN!
Dr Ted Bowell is a mild-mannered guy you’ve never heard of and probably wouldn’t pay much attention to. Plain fact is, though, he is a guy who might one day save the world! He works at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Dr Bowell’s spent almost his entire career searching through the dark reaches of space for asteroids, some of which can be more than 10 miles across, that might be on a collision orbit with earth
“About one out of a thousand asteroids that get discovered actually comes within a few million miles of the earth.” Dr Bowell says this matter of factly. A few million miles is pretty close to him.
Through powerful telescopes at the observatory, Dr. Bowell has found more of these asteroids than almost anyone else in the world. For a long time it was a process on computers that looked to me to be excruciatingly boring. Dr Bowell spent hours looking at a bunch of streaks moving across a plain, white screen. An asteroid was a little streak of light going off in another direction from everything else. He calculated its orbit and if it looked like it would hit earth he'd sound the alarm. Now, though, "the telescope we use is a 60-cm (2-ft) mirror, so it's not all that big. Everything is completely computerized now, so I don't spend all those hours looking for asteroids that move against the starry background."
Sometimes those big asteroids wandering around out there do hit earth. In a BIG way!
Fifty-thousand years ago one came blazing out of space at 10 miles a second and smashed into the high desert of Northern Arizona. And Dr Bowell said, “if the same meteor that landed here were to land in downtown Phoenix, Phoenix would cease to exist.
The meteorite, hurtling along at 40,000 miles per hour, struck the rocky plain of Northern Arizona with an explosive force greater than 20 million tons of TNT. The meteorite, estimated to have been about 150 feet across and weighing several hundred thousand tons, in less than a few seconds, left a crater 700 feet deep and over 4000 feet across. Large blocks of limestone, some the size of small houses were heaved onto the rim. Flat-lying beds of rock in the crater walls were overturned in fractions of a second and uplifted permanently as much as 150 feet.
For just its supreme, awe inspiring qualities, one of my favorite places is Meteor Crater. Today the crater is 550 feet deep, and 2.4 miles in circumference. Twenty football games could be played simultaneously on its floor, while more than two million spectators observed from its sloping sides.
Scientists believe a chunk of metal, mostly heavy iron and nickel, like the one you see in the picture on this page, only about 10-MILES across, hit the earth 65-million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs.
So the odds are, what, of getting hit again?
“We have just the same likelihood of an impact today as they had the day before the impact 65-million years ago,” said Dr Bowell. “Or the day after. The small ones, of the kind that caused Meteor Crater, we know almost nothing about. We've discovered a handful out of millions.”
"But in 1998, the search for near-earth asteroids began in ernest," Dr Bowell said. "And so far we have discovered about 60% of the NEAS thought to be larger than 1 km in diameter. There are five groups, including mine (Loneos), being funded by NASA to do the search. Loneos has found about 10% of the NEAS since 1998, and our rate of discovery is steadily rising as we improve detection methods."
Still, there a lot of those things out there Dr Bowell HASN"T found. That kinda’ frightens me a little bit, I mutter.
“Well, it should. We are still in somewhat a state of ignorance on this subject.”
So Dr Bowell has spent his whole life peering into space, watching, ever watching, occasionally discovering an immense dark hulk, an ancient traveler from far back in the beginning heading our way. If it starts to come straight at us, Dr. Bowell MIGHT be able to warn us in time to do something about it.
But should we worry about it right now?
“Certainly not. I don't think you should lose any sleep over it. After all, you don't know anyone who's ever died in an asteroid impact.”
So, these are some of the things you might want to think about when you visit Meteor Crater on the high desert of Northern Arizona. You might want to keep an eye on the sky, be on the look-out for any fiery ball of chunky nickel hurtling down from the icy reaches of deep space.
Meteor Crater Visitors Center is open 365 days a year. Visitation hours are as follows:
Go to http://www.meteorcrater.com/ for more info.
Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff is also open to the public all year round and they conduct guided tours 2 or 3 times a day. Go here for more info.