We may, now more than ever, desperately need kindness, love, and compassion. I think, however, that humility should come first. A piece of genetic material just a fraction of the width of human hair has killed millions of people in just the past year. The biggest and strongest amongst us is as much at risk as anyone. Sometimes, size alone is simply not enough to beat the odds.
Likewise, we can breathlessly examine the immensity and power of a black hole, and marvel at supersize planets like Jupiter and Saturn. But what we really need to study are the small, often rather insignificant rocky bodies that exist throughout the solar system. Asteroids, something like our microscopic viruses, not only have the potential to cause considerable destruction, but may have also been the mechanism that brought the building blocks of life to Earth. So, let us be humble in the knowledge that from small things may come the most consequential.
The largest asteroid is Ceres, located in the region between Mars and Jupiter. It is about 600 miles wide. Its home, the asteroid belt, is where the majority of the millions of asteroids can be found. However, some have eccentric orbits and pass close enough to our planet to require ongoing observation.
Asteroids sometimes enter our atmosphere, becoming meteors. If they reach the surface before burning up we call them meteorites. The death of the dinosaurs, some 65 million years ago, was probably the result of a massive meteor. Smaller strikes have left such landmarks as Meteor Crater near Winslow.
Scientists believe that asteroids were formed over 4.5 billion years ago at the very beginning of our solar system. Rather than coalescing into a planet, these oddly shaped leftovers have, instead, slammed into their celestial cousins and into each other, depositing and spreading their metals and organic compounds to all takers.
In an effort to more fully understand how the solar system was formed and the role asteroids have played, NASA continues to oversee a mission in which several ounces of surface material from the Asteroid Bennu have been collected. The agency hopes to begin examining and analyzing the sample in late 2023.
Bennu is not a threat to our planet, even though in 2135 it may briefly be closer to us than we are to the moon. Right now, it is over 200 million miles away. Astronomers have calculated its diameter at 500 meters, or roughly the height of the Empire State Building. It orbits the sun every 436 days. Its distance from Earth caused an 18-minute delay in sending and receiving data to and from the Osiris-REx spacecraft as it maneuvered toward Bennu’s surface.
We take so much for granted. Just as we have always assumed that beating a virus was only an aspirin or two away, so we also have tended to steer our sights to the mightiest objects in the sky. Mercifully, the brilliance that has given us vaccines mirrors the brilliance that imagines and builds a machine that can travel through space to a speeding skyscraper and then, to top it off, scoop up some dirt that may very well prove how the sun and the planets came to be.
Even today I can hear my mother’s voice telling me not to fear a tiny insect crawling nearby. You are so much bigger than it, she says. She was right, but also wrong. Instead, the emotion I should have focused upon was amazement. It holds true that here on Earth as well as in the heavens, it’s often the little things that matter the most and may be the most far-reaching.
We should be humbled at what the coronavirus has wrought. Similarly, let’s be humbled by the thought that relatively small space rocks may be at the root of so much we’ve come to enjoy – and need – in everyday life. Maybe from such humility springs greater preparedness, and well as joy.