Around this time every year, the Earth, on her year long trundle around the Sun, passes through the Perseid cloud of cometary debris. The resulting month long encounter produces arguably the most prolific and spectacular meteor shower for northern observers – the Perseids. As many as 100 “shooting stars” an hour may be visible at its peak in mid-August and the shower is eagerly awaited by sky-gazers for it’s dazzling and reliable display of colourful meteors and fireballs.
The source of the Perseids is dust and debris contained in a relatively dense ‘cloud’ impacting the upper atmosphere of the planet and burning up due to rapid deceleration due to increased aerodynamic drag. The shower has been observed for millennia, the first recorded sighting was in 69 BC, and most of the dust and debris responsible for the shower was pulled off a comet a thousand years ago. The particles that produce this astronomical light-show are generally tiny, on the order of centimetres, and pose little threat to the Earth below. However, the same cannot be said for their parent, comet Swift-Tuttle.
Comet Swift Tuttle (designation: 109P/Swift–Tuttle) is a typical Halley-like long period comet. It tears through the inner solar system when nearing the closest approach of its 133 year orbit around the Sun; an orbit that takes it out 12 AU past Pluto to 51 AU, and all the way back again. Its last close encounter with Earth was in 1992, and it won’t return until 2126.
For a while following its rediscovery in 1992, almost 10 years away from its expected position, the orbital evolution of the comet was not well constrained and there was considerable cause for alarm when it was estimated to be on a collision course with Earth in 2126. Concern was justified: its nucleus is 26km in diameter, considerably larger than the 10 km impactor that is thought to have caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-T) mass extinction event 65 million years ago. However, reanalysis of ancient records of observations and improved calculations that included the effects of nucleus evaporation confirmed that the comet is on a very stable orbit and poses little threat to Earth for the next 2000 years.
That said, in a 1997 book by South African/American radio astronomer Gerrit Verschuur, comet Swift-Tuttle was described as the most dangerous object known to man for it’s ability to cause catastrophic damage if it was to impact the Earth. An exceptionally close encounter is expected in 4479, bringing Swift Tuttle to within 0.03 AU (approximately 4 million km) of the Earth – roughly 10 times the mean Earth-Moon distance. Travelling at a relative velocity of 60 km per second, Swift-Tuttle would unleash the equivalent of a devastating 3.2×1015 tons of TNT upon impact – 27 times the energy of the K-T impactor. For comparison, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated was a ‘mere’ 50 megatons (106). It would very likely cause huge loss of life across the planet and result in a mass extinction unlike any known previously, whilst placing unbridled pressure on the capacity for human civilisation to recover. If the initial impact was survived, tsunamis, wildfires, earthquakes, years of darkness and a toxic atmosphere would follow. Harvard astrophysicist John Chambers estimates the chance of collision in 4479 to be 1 in 1,000,000. Best of luck to our descendants 2467 years from now!
It is worth bearing this in mind when you gaze up over the next few nights to witness the magnificent sight of the ancient dust of this comet burning up in our atmosphere, for one day their parent may put on a somewhat more spectacular, if devastating, show.