[FOUNTAIN]Great balls of fire

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[FOUNTAIN]Great balls of fire

On June 30, 1908, a huge, orange-colored ball was seen flying across the sky northwest of Lake Baikal in central Siberia. The flaming orb exploded at an altitude of 8 kilometers and then caused a large, fiery detonation. Filled with fear, none of the locals went to the explosion site, believing that Ogdy, the legendary god of destruction, had appeared.

It took 19 years for scientists to figure out what had happened. Leonid Kulik, a Soviet astronomer, uncovered information in an old newspaper article about a meteorite and, in 1927, started research on the explosion. Pine trees had fallen down in one direction and were totally scorched. A forest of 2,000 square kilometers, larger than Jeju Island, was destroyed. The impact left by the ball was 800 times bigger than the impact from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II.

A scientific analysis shows that that the Siberian ball was an asteroid 60 meters in diameter. That asteroid, like all objects that approach the orbit of Earth, are called Near-Earth Objects. This horrifying incident is no longer simply a 100-year-old story, however.

As we were cheering Korea's World Cup victory against Portugal on June 14, another asteroid passed by Earth. No one realized this had happened because no one knew. But on June 17, scientists discovered that we had barely dodged a disaster that could have destroyed the world. The press reported the frightening news on June 20.

This asteroid proved to be much bigger than the the one that struck Siberia. In fact, its diameter was twice as big (120 meters) as that of the 1908 asteroid. The recent asteroid, which is being called "2002MN" by scientists, passed through the 380,000 kilometer-wide space between Earth and the moon at a speed of 10 kilometers per second. The closest distance it came to Earth was 120,000 kilometers, but reportedly it is the biggest asteroid to come so near our planet. A collision between an asteroid and Earth might take place once every 300 years. If "2002MN" had collided with Earth, it would have been much more disastrous than what occurred in 1908, even though the latest asteroid would have partially disintegrated upon entering the atmosphere.

It is horrifying to imagine the destruction that could be caused by such a collision. That human beings cannot avoid such a disaster in spite of modern technology makes us feel small in this universe. There is no way the excitement of the World Cup could compare to such an event.



The writer is a deputy culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Oh Byung-sang

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