“There, with long bloody Hair, a Blazing Star
Threatens the World with Famine, Plague & War:
To Princes, death; to Kingdomes many crosses:
To all Estates, Inevitable Losses:
To Heardmen, Rott: to Plow-men hapless seasons:
To Sailors, Storms: to Cities, civil Treasons.”
~Ninety-eight percent of all earth-bound species that have ever lived are extinct. Certain estimates place the background rate of extinction at 1 to 10 million years, meaning that anything which perishes quicker or survives longer is an adaptational outlier. Our species has existed for approximately 200,000 years, thus not yet an outlier. Our status as one of evolution’s favored children, yet unproven. For comparative context, the innocuous jellyfish has existed for some 600 million years. Cyanobacteria (cynophyta), an aquatic, photosynthetic prokaryotic organism, first emerged around 2.8 billion years ago. Stromatolites (striated biochemical accretions) formed by cynobacteria are the oldest known fossils in the geologic record and their predecessors still exist today, which situates them as the most successful microorganism in planetary history. Our species’ predilection for abstraction, however, affords a power foreign to jellyfish, cyanobacteria, or any other creature: The ability to leave the planet at will. Given the impending fuel exhaustion of our local star, this singular attribute is of considerable practical importance.
Approximately one billion years from now, the sun will have engorged itself to such a size, due exhaustion of its hydrogen stock, that all water on earth will boil. In ~5 billion years our local star will have expanded to ~250 times its present size, whereafter it will swallow the inner planets, including the earth.
In their paper ‘Distant future of the Sun and Earth revisited’ K.-P. Schroder and Robert Connon Smith detail model findings of the prospective red giant–earth dynamic, “… the closest encounter of planet Earth with the solar cool giant photosphere will occur during the tip-RGB [red giant branch] phase. During this critical episode, for each time-step of the evolution model, we consider the loss of orbital angular momentum suffered by planet Earth from tidal interaction with the giant Sun, as well as dynamical drag in the lower chromosphere. As a result of this, we find that planet Earth will not be able to escape engulfment, despite the positive effect of solar mass loss.”
Even if some portion of our species are able to escape their red-giant-threatened sphere, the sun will eventually fade completely, breaking all constrained orbits in the system, rendering unswallowed planets to frigid increase. Tomb worlds adrift in a stellar mausoleum.
But not all cosmic risks are so far-flung. On June 30, 1908, the residents of central Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk Krai region were startled by a great explosion which devastated 80 million trees across over 811 square miles (half the size of Rhode Island), generated hot winds and a 0.5 magnitude earthquake. The air glowed ethereally for several days after the incident. The cause of the upheaval was a meteorite no more than 10 meters across, which had exploded a few miles above the ground with 1000 times the yield of an atomic bomb. This celestial invasion was followed by the similarly potent Chelyabinsk meteor of 2013, which caused infrastructural damage over 200 square miles and the injuries of ~1600 persons, and the Bering Sea meteor of 2018. The Chelabinsk impact lead directly to the creation of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Despite the instantiation of the new program, the Bering Sea incident (captured via NASA’s Terra satellite) went under the radar due to the remoteness of the area of its descent and its small dimensions (~10 meters) relative to those objects tracked by NASA (140+ meters).
Eyes preoccupied by looking do not see.
Since the Bering Sea event, there have been other near misses, such as the 100 meter-wide “2019 OK” asteroid, which passed 5 times closer to earth than the moon without detection. NASA predicted that, should the asteroid have impacted with the earth, it would have glassed an area ~50 miles across. A signal sent. The arachnidic head which we have constructed at the top of our world requires new and better eyes. Better because durability must be accounted for due the buffets of the cosmic terrain. Solar flares precipitating geomagnetic storms, such as the 1859 Carrington Event, and gamma-ray bursts, from a supermassive star collapse or the collision of two neutron stars, can damage satellites, no matter the quantity, and, if sufficiently powerful, could strip earth of its atmosphere.
Intelligent intervention is clearly required. Both in the near and long term. Uncrewed and crewed. Temporary and intergenerational. But in any discussion of intercession upon “natural” processes, a cry of “hold” will be called, as future concern tends toward what might occur should we act. Complications from orbital debris. Rogue AI. Nuclear war. Climate variation. Yet, the futures detailed in the preceding paragraphs (stellar terminus and meteoric devastation) are those which will arise should we not act, rather than those which may occur if we do. The former schema should be the primary concern, for any potential calamity which stands within plausibility of occurrence due to our action(s) is already within (some portion) of our species’ ability to control, whereas the astral threats scribed above presently stand beyond our mastery, the acquisition of which is a necessary condition for the present defense and future survival of our species, upon which all life on earth necessarily depends.
Over one billion trillion stars elucidate the illimitable gulf. Each a sequin in a mantle to be woven.
Note: Publication volume and number are represented as “#(#);” hence, “10(3)” means “vol. 10, no. 3.”
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