COSMOS - HEAVEN and HELL
The following text has been edited from the original source (Cosmos by Carl Sagan) to compliment the assignment on Catastrophes. After viewing the video "Heaven and Hell" use this file to answer the questions.The questions that go along with the video can be obtained by clicking here.
The Earth is a lovely and more or less placid place. Things change, but slowly. We can lead a full life and never personally encounter a natural disaster more violent than a storm. And so we become complacent, relaxed, unconcerned. But in the history of Nature, the record is clear. Worlds have been devastated. On the landscapes of other planets where the records of the past have been preserved, there is abundant evidence of major catastrophes. It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million. Even on the Earth, even in our own century, bizarre natural events have occurred.
In the early morning hours of June 30, 1908, in Central Siberia, a giant fireball was seen moving rapidly across the sky. Where it touched the horizon, an enormous explosion took place. It levered some 2,000 square kilometers of forest and burned thousands of trees in a flash fire near the impact site. It produced an atmospheric shock wave that twice circled the Earth. For two days afterward, there was so much fine dust in the atmosphere that one could read a newspaper at night by scattered light in the streets of London, 10,000 kilometers away.
This remarkable occurrence is called the Tunguska Event. Some scientists have suggested that it was caused by a piece of hurtling antimatter, annihilated on contact with the ordinary matter of the Earth, disappearing in a flash of gamma rays. But the absence of radioactivity at the impact site gives no support to this explanation. Others postulate that a mini black hole passed through the Earth in Siberia and out the other side. But the records of atmospheric shock waves show no hint of an object booming out of the North Atlantic later that day. Perhaps it was a spaceship of some unimaginably advanced extraterrestrial civilization in desperate mechanical trouble, crashing in a remote region of an obscure planet. But at the site of the impact there is no trace of such a ship. Each of these ideas has been proposed, some of them more or less seriously. Not one of them is strongly supported by the evidence. The key point of the Tunguska Event is that there was a tremendous explosion, a great shock wave, an enormous forest fire, and yet there is no impact crater at the site. There seems to be only one explanation consistent with all the facts: In 1908 a piece of a comet hit the Earth.
In the vast spaces between the planets there are many objects, some rocky, some metallic, some icy, some composed partly of organic molecules. They range from grains of dust to irregular blocks the size of the State of New York. And sometimes, by accident, there is a planet in the way. The Tunguska Event was probably caused by an icy cometary fragment about a hundred meters across-the size of a football field-weighing a million tons, moving at about 30 kilometers per second, 70,000 miles per hour.
If such an impact occurred today it might be mistaken, especially in the panic of the moment, for a nuclear explosion. The cometary impact and fireball would simulate all effects of a one megaton nuclear burst, including the mushroom cloud, with two exceptions: there would be no gamma radiation or radioactive fallout. Could a rare but natural event, the impact of a sizable cometary fragment, trigger a nuclear war? A strange scenario: a small comet hits the Earth, as millions of them have, and the response of our civilization is promptly to self-destruct. It might be a good idea for us to understand comets and collisions and catastrophes a little better than we do. For example, an American Vela satellite detected an intense double flash of light from the vicinity of the South Atlantic and Western Indian Ocean on September 22, 1979. Early speculation held that it was a clandestine test of a low yield (two kilotons, about a sixth the energy of the Hiroshima bomb) nuclear weapon by South Africa or Israel. The political consequences were considered serious around the world. But what if the flashes were instead caused by the impact of a small asteroid or a piece of a comet? Since airborne over flights in the vicinity of the flashes showed not a trace of unusual radioactivity in the air, this is a real possibility and underscores the dangers in an age of nuclear weapons of not monitoring impacts from space better than we do.
A comet is made mostly of ice-water (H2O) ice, with a little methane (CH4) ice, and some ammonia (NH3) ice. Striking the Earth's atmosphere, a modest cometary fragment would produce a great radiant fireball and a mighty blast wave, which would burn trees, level forests and be heard around the world. But it might not make much of a crater in the ground. The ices would all be melted during entry. There would be few recognizable pieces of the comet left perhaps only a smattering of small grains from the non-icy parts of the cometary nucleus. Recently, the Soviet scientist E. Sobotovich has identified a large number of tiny diamonds strewn over the Tunguska site. Such diamonds are already known to exist in meteorites that have survived impact, and that may originate ultimately from comets.
On many a clear night, if you look patiently up at the sky, you will see a solitary meteor blazing briefly overhead. On some nights you can see a shower of meteors, always on the same few days of every year a natural fireworks display, an entertainment in the heavens. These meteors are made by tiny grains, smaller than a mustard seed. They are less shooting stars than falling fluff. Momentarily brilliant as they enter the Earth's atmosphere, they are heated and destroyed by friction at a height of about 100 kilometers. Meteors are the remnants of comets. Old comets, heated by repeated passages near the Sun, break up, evaporate and disintegrate. The debris spreads to fill the cometary orbit. Where that orbit intersects the orbit of the Earth, there is a swarm of meteors waiting for us. Some part of the swarm is always at the same position in the Earth's orbit, so the meteor shower is always observed on the same day of every year. June 30, 1908 was the day of the Beta Taurid meteor shower, connected with the orbit of Comet Encke. The Tunguska Event seems to have been caused by a chunk of Comet Encke, a piece substantially larger than the tiny fragments that cause those glittering, harmless meteor showers.
Comets have always evoked fear and awe and superstition. Their occasional apparitions disturbingly challenged the notion of an unalterable and divinely ordered Cosmos. It seemed inconceivable that a spectacular streak of milk-white flame, rising and setting with the stars night after night, was not there for a reason, did not hold some portent for human affairs. So the idea arose that comets were harbingers of disaster, auguries of divine wrath that they foretold the deaths of princes, the fall of kingdoms. The Babylonians thought that comets were celestial beards. The Greeks thought of flowing hair, the Arabs of flaming swords. In Ptolemy's time comets were elaborately classified as "beams," atrumpets," "jars" and so on, according to their shapes. Ptolemy thought that comets bring wars, hot weather and "disturbed conditions." Some medieval depictions of comets resemble unidentified flying crucifixes. A Lutheran "Superintendent" or Bishop of Magdeburg named Andreas Celichius published in 1578 a "Theological Reminder of the New Comet," which offered the inspired view that a comet is "the thick smoke of human sins, rising every day, every hour, every moment, full of stench and horror before the face of God, and becoming gradually so thick as to form a comet, with curled and plaited tresses, which at last is kindled by the hot and fiery anger of the Supreme Heavenly Judge." But others countered that if comets were the smoke of sin, the skies would be continually ablaze with them.
The most ancient record of an apparition of Halley's (or any other) Comet appears in the Chinese Book of Prince Hua Nan, attendant to the march of King Wu against Zhou of Yin. The year was 1057 BC The approach to Earth of Halley's Comet in the year 66 is the probable explanation of the account by Josephus of a sword that hung over Jerusalem for a whole year. In 1066 the Normans witnessed another return of Halley's Comet. Since it must, they thought, presage the fall of some kingdom, the comet encouraged, in some sense precipitated, the invasion of England by William the Conqueror. The comet was duly noted in a newspaper of the time, the Bayeux Tapestry. In 1301, Giotto, one of the founders of modern realistic painting, witnessed another apparition of Comet Halley and inserted it into a nativity scene. The Great Comet of 1466 yet another return of Halley's Comet panicked Christian Europe; the Christians feared that God, who sends comets, might be on the side of the Turks, who had just captured Constantinople.
The leading astronomers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were fascinated by comets, and even Newton became a little giddy over them. Kepler described comets as darting through space "as the fishes in the sea," but being dissipated by sunlight, as the cometary tail always points away from the sun. David Hume, in many cases an uncompromising rationalist, at least toyed with the notion that comets were the reproductive cells, the eggs or sperm of planetary systems, that planets are produced by a kind of interstellar sex. As an undergraduate, before his invention of the reflecting telescope, Newton spent many consecutive sleepless nights searching the sky for comets with his naked eye, pursuing them with such fervor that he felt ill from exhaustion. Following Tycho and Kepler, Newton concluded that the comets seen from Earth do not move within our atmosphere, as Aristotle and others had thought, but rather are more distant than the Moon, although closer than Saturn. Comets shine, as the planets do, by reflected sunlight, "and they are much mistaken who remove them almost as far as the fixed stars; for if it were so, the comets could receive no more light from our Sun than our planets do from the fixed stars." He showed that comets, like planets, move in ellipses: "Comets are a sort of planets revolved in very eccentric orbits about the Sun. This demystification, this prediction of regular cometary orbits, led his friend Edmund Halley in 1707 to calculate that the comets of 1531, 1607 and 1682 were apparitions at 76-year intervals of the same comet, and predicted its return in 1758. The comet duly arrived and was named for him posthumously. Comet Halley has played an interesting role in human history, and may be the target of the first space vehicle probe of a comet, during its return in 1986.
Modern planetary scientists sometimes argue that the collision of a comet with a planet might make a significant contribution to the planetary atmosphere. For example, all the water in the atmosphere of Mars today could be accounted for by a recent impact of a small comet. Newton noted that the matter in the tails of comets is dissipated in interplanetary space, lost to the comet and little by little attracted gravitationally to nearby planets. Newton seems to have believed that the Earth's oceans are of cometary origin, and that life is possible only because cometary matter falls upon our planet. In a mystical reverie, he went still further: "I suspect, moreover, that it is chiefly from the comets that spirit comes, which is indeed the smallest but the most subtle and useful part of our air, and so much required to sustain the life of all things with us."
As early as 1868 the astronomer William Huggins found an identity between some features in the spectrum of a comet and the spectrum of natural or "olefiant" gas. Huggins had found organic matter in the comets; in subsequent years cyanogen, CN, consisting of a carbon and a nitrogen atom, the molecular fragment that makes cyanides, was identified in the tails of comets. When the Earth was about to pass through the tail of Halley's Comet in 1910, many people panicked. They overlooked the fact that the tail of a comet is extravagantly diffuse: the actual danger from the poison in a comet's tail is far less than the danger, even in 1910, from industrial pollution in large cities. But that reassured almost no one. For example, headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle for May 15, 1910, include "Comet Camera as Big as a House," Comet Comes and Husband Reforms," Comet Parties Now Fad in New York." The Los Angeles Examiner adopted a light mood: "Say! Has That Comet Cyanogened You Yet? . . . Entire Human Race Due for Free Gaseous Bath," "Expect High Jinks," In 1910 there were parties, making merry before the world ended of cyanogen pollution. Entrepreneurs hawked anti comet pills and gas masks, the latter an eerie premonition of the battlefields of World War I.
While the planets move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, their orbits are not very elliptical. At first glance they are, by and large, indistinguishable from circles. It is the comets-especially the long-period comets-that have dramatically elliptical orbits. The planets are the old-timers in the inner solar system; the comets are the newcomers. Why are the planetary orbits nearly circular and neatly separated one from the other? Because if planets had very elliptical orbits, so that their paths intersected, sooner or later there would be a collision. In the early history of the solar system, there were probably many planets in the process of formation. Those with elliptical crossing orbits tended to collide and destroy themselves. Those with circular orbits tended to grow and survive. The orbits of the present planets are the orbits of the survivors of this collisional natural selection, the stable middle age of a solar system dominated by early catastrophic impacts.
In the outermost solar system, in the gloom far beyond the planets, there is a vast spherical cloud of a trillion cometary nuclei, orbiting the Sun no faster than a racing car at the Indianapolis 500. A fairly typical comet would look like a giant tumbling snowball about 1 kilometer across. Most never penetrate the border marked by the orbit of Pluto. But occasionally a passing star makes a gravitational flurry and commotion in the cometary cloud, and a group of comets finds itself in highly elliptical orbits, plunging toward the Sun. After its path is further changed by gravitational encounters with Jupiter or Saturn, it tends to find itself, once every century or so, careening toward the inner solar system. Somewhere between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars it would begin heating and evaporating. Matter blown outwards from the Sun's atmosphere, the solar wind, carries fragments of dust and ice back behind the comet, making an incipient tail. If Jupiter were a meter across, our comet would be smaller than a speck of dust, but when fully developed, its tail would be as great as the distances between the worlds. When within sight of the Earth on each of its orbits, it would stimulate outpourings of superstitious fervor among the Earthlings. But eventually they would understand that it lived not in their atmosphere, but out among the planets. They would calculate its orbit. And perhaps one day soon they would launch a small space vehicle devoted to exploring this visitor from the realm of the stars.
Sooner or later comets will collide with planets. The Earth and its companion the Moon must be bombarded by comets and small asteroids, debris left over from the formation of the solar system. Since there are more small objects than large ones, there should be more impacts by small objects than by large ones. An impact of a small cometary fragment with the Earth, as at Tunguska, should occur about once every thousand years. But an impact with a large comet, such as Halley's Comet, whose nucleus is perhaps twenty kilometers across, should occur only about once every billion years.
When a small, icy object collides with a planet or a moon, it may not produce a very major scar. But if the impacting object is larger or made primarily of rock, there is an explosion on impact that carves out a hemispherical bowl called an impact crater. And if no process rubs out or fills in the crater, it may last for billion of years. Almost no erosion occurs on the Moon and when we examine its surface, we find it covered with impact craters, many more than can be accounted for by the rather sparse population of cometary and asteroidal debris that now fills the inner solar system. The lunar surface offers eloquent testimony of a previous age of the destruction of worlds, now billions of years gone.
Impact craters are not restricted to the Moon. We find them throughout the inner solar system from Mercury, closest to the Sun, to cloud-covered Venus to Mars and its tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos. These are the terrestrial planets, our family of worlds, the planets more or less like the Earth. They have solid surfaces, interiors made of rock and iron, and atmospheres ranging from near-vacuum to pressures ninety times higher than the Earth's. They huddle around the Sun, the source of light and heat, like campers around a fire. The planets are all about 4.6 billion years old. Like the Moon, they all bear witness to an age of impact catastrophism in the early history of the solar system.
As we move out past Mars we enter a very different regime, the realm of Jupiter and the other giant or jovian planets. These are great worlds, composed largely of hydrogen and helium, with smaller amounts of hydrogen-rich gases such as methane, ammonia and water. We do not see solid surfaces here, only the atmosphere and the multicolored clouds. These are serious planets, not fragmentary worldlets like the Earth. A thousand Earths could fit inside Jupiter. If a comet or an asteroid dropped into the atmosphere of Jupiter, we would not expect a visible crater, only a momentary break in the clouds. Nevertheless, we know there has been a many-billion-year history of collisions in the outer solar system as well-because Jupiter has a great system of more than a dozen moons, five of which were examined close up by the Voyager spacecraft. Here again we find evidence of past catastrophes. When the solar system is all explored, we will probably have evidence for impact catastrophism on all nine worlds, from Mercury to Pluto, and on all the smaller moons, comets and asteroids.
There are about 10,000 craters on the near side of the Moon, visible to telescopes on Earth. Most of them are in the ancient lunar highlands and date from the time of the final accretion of the Moon from interplanetary debris. There are about a thousand craters larger than a kilometer across in the maria (Latin for seas), the lowland regions that were flooded, perhaps by lava, shortly after the formation of the Moon, covering over the preexisting craters. Thus, very roughly, craters on the Moon should be formed today at the rate of about 109 years/104 craters, = 105 years/crater, a hundred thousand years between cratering events. Since there may have been more interplanetary debris a few billion years ago than there is today, we might have to wait even longer than a hundred thousand years to see a crater form on the Moon. Because the Earth has a larger area than the Moon, we might have to wait something like ten thousand years between collisions that would make craters as big as a kilometer across on our planet. And since Meteor Crater, Arizona, an impact crater about a kilometer across, has been found to be twenty or thirty thousand years old, the observations on the Earth are in agreement with such crude calculations.
The actual impact of a small comet or asteroid with the Moon might make a momentary explosion sufficiently bright to be visible from the Earth. We can imagine our ancestors gazing idly up on some night a hundred thousand years ago and noting a strange cloud arising from the unilluminated part of the Moon suddenly struck by the Sun's rays. But we would not expect such an event to have happened in historical times. The odds against it must be something like a hundred to one. Nevertheless, there is an historical account which may in fact describe an impact on the Moon seen from Earth with the naked eye: On the evening of June 25, 1178, five British monks reported something extraordinary, which was later recorded in the chronicle of Gervase of Canterbury, generally considered a reliable reporter on the political and cultural events of his time, after he had interviewed the eyewitnesses who asserted, under oath, the truth of their story.
The chronicle reads: There was a bright New Moon, and as usual in that phase its horns were tilted towards the east. Suddenly, the upper horn split in two. From the midpoint of the division, a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out fire, hot coals, and sparks.
The astronomers Derral Mulholland and Odile Calame have calculated that a lunar impact would produce a dust cloud rising off the surface of the Moon with an appearance corresponding rather closely to the report of the Canterbury monks. If such an impact were made only 800 years ago, the crater should still be visible. Erosion on the Moon is so inefficient, because of the absence of air and water, that even small craters a few billion years old are still comparatively well preserved. From the description recorded by Gervase, it is possible to pinpoint the sector of the Moon to which the observations refer. Impacts produce rays, linear trails of fine powder spewed out during the explosion. Such rays are associated with the very youngest craters on the Moon-for example, those named after Aristarchus and Copernicus and Kepler. But while the craters may withstand erosion on the Moon, the rays, being exceptionally thin, do not. As time goes on, even the arrival of micrometeorites-fine dust from space-stirs up and covers over the rays, and they gradually disappear. Thus rays are a signature of a recent impact.
The meteoriticist Jack Hartung has pointed out that a very recent, very fresh-looking small crater with a prominent ray system lies exactly in the region of the Moon referred to by the Canterbury monks. It is called Giordano Bruno after the sixteenth century Roman Catholic scholar who held that there are an infinity of worlds and that many are inhabited. For this and other crimes he was burned at the stake in the year 1600. Another line of evidence consistent with this interpretation has been provided by Calame and Mulholland. When an object impacts the Moon at high speed, it sets the Moon slightly wobbling. Eventually the vibrations die down but not in so short a period as eight hundred years. Such a quivering can be studied by laser reflection techniques. The Apollo astronauts scattered in several locales on the Moon special mirrors called laser retro reflectors. When a laser beam from Earth strikes the mirror and bounces back, the round-trip travel time can be measured with remarkable precision. This time multiplied by the speed of light gives us the distance to the Moon at that moment to equally remarkable precision. Such measurements, performed over a period of years, reveal the Moon to be quivering with a period (about three years) and amplitude (about three meters), consistent with the idea that the crater Giordano Bruno was gouged out less than a thousand years ago.
All this evidence is inferential and indirect. The odds, as I have said, are against such an event happening in historical times. But the evidence is at least suggestive. As the Tunguska Event and Meteor Crater, Arizona, also remind us, not all impact catastrophes occurred in the early history of the solar system. But the fact that only a few of the lunar craters have extensive ray systems also reminds us that, even on the Moon, some erosion occurs. By noting which craters overlap which and other signs of lunar stratigraphy, we can reconstruct the sequence of impact and flooding events of which the production of crater Bruno is perhaps the most recent. example. To visualize the events that made the surface of the moon we see from Earth click here.
The Earth is very near the Moon. If the Moon is so severely cratered by impacts, how has the Earth avoided them? Why is Meteor Crater so rare? Do the comets and asteroids think it inadvisable to impact an inhabited planet? This is an unlikely forbearance. The only possible explanation is that impact crater are formed at very similar rates on both the Earth and the Moon, but that on the airless, waterless Moon they are preserved for immense periods of time, while on the Earth slow erosion wipes them out or fills them in. Running water,-windblown sand and mountain-building are very slow processes. But over millions or billions of years, they are capable of utterly erasing even very large impact scars.
On the surface of any moon or planet, there will be external processes, such as impacts from space, and internal processes, such as earthquakes; there will be fast, catastrophic events, such as volcanic explosions, and processes of excruciating slowness, such as the pitting of a surface by tiny airborne sand grains. There is no general answer to the question of which processes dominate, the outside ones or the inside ones; the rare but violent events, or the common and inconspicuous occurrences. On the Moon, the outside, catastrophic events hold sway; on Earth, the inside, slow processes dominate. Mars is an intermediate case.
Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter are countless asteroids, tiny terrestrial planets. The largest are a few hundred kilometers across. Many have oblong shapes and are tumbling through space. In some cases there seem to be two or more asteroids in tight mutual orbits. Collisions among the asteroids happen frequently, and occasionally a piece is chipped off and accidentally intercepts the Earth, falling to the ground as a meteorite. In the exhibits, on the shelves of our museums are the fragments of distant worlds. The asteroid belt is a great grinding mill, producing smaller and smaller pieces down to motes of dust. The bigger asteroidal pieces, along with the comets, are mainly responsible for the recent craters on planetary surfaces. The asteroid belt may be a place where a planet was once prevented from forming because of the gravitational tides of the giant nearby planet Jupiter; or it may be the shattered remains of a planet that blew itself up. This seems improbable because no scientist on Earth knows how a planet might blow itself up, which is probably just as well.
Return to Cosmos Index
Return to Astronomy IndexReturn to the Longwood Science Dept Home Page