Apr

10

You recall they found a lot of iridium at the KT boundary in sediment, corresponding with the extinction of dinosaurs ~65M yrs ago. Luis Alvarez and others concluded that a decent size asteroid struck near what is now Yucatan around that time, resulting in mass extinction.

Long ago (but not that long) when I was involved with astrophotography I befriended* Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker. Gene's dissertation was on Arizona meteor (Barringer) crater, where he discovered "shocked quartz": quartz crystals with microscopically features diagnostic of a large impact. He and his wife spent their life searching for other such impacts, using satellite images and rock samples.

Early on they teamed up with Eleanor "Glo" Helin of Caltech (and my former neighbor), searching the skies for other possible earth-crossing asteroids (there are many of them). Every month taking images with the 18" Schmidt camera (telescope) at Mt Palomar, Gene built a microscope comparator to check images a few days apart to look for stars that moved (=asteroids or comets. Similar to how Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh using blink comparator). With this device the movement was seen as a 3D relief - like a star floating above the others).

Like many partnerships this ended in a feud, and the Shoemakers and Glo weren't on speaking terms. Caltech resolved it by giving one team the week before new moon (the dark part of the month), and the other after new moon. But Carolyn - who was not a professional astronomer (she met Gene when he was her brother's classmate at Caltech) - was very good at spotting these floating smudges, and went on to set the record of discovery of comets by a woman (Jean Mueller eventually broke this record - story for another time). The shoemakers went on to partner with amateur David Levy, who together discovered comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 - which impacted on Jupiter's atmosphere in spectacular fashion.

Anyway in those days there were cautionary calls for more programs to search for wayward asteroids that could impact the earth. Some suggested huge funding - to try to find these bodies early and also weapons that could be launched to deflect them away from the earth.

The Shoemakers are gone now (Gene died in a head-on collision in Australia while searching for impacts), and so is the impact worry. But imagine (if you will), that today's crisis - instead of a tiny virus - was an inbound rock 10 miles in diameter. "Why? Why Orangeman, didn't you fund X,Y,Z, when your top scientists said it was important? Why did you defund the 18" Schmidt on Palomar (a wonderful but obsolete instrument) when it could have saved us?

*I was using gas hypersensitized Kodak technical pan 2415 film, which they used as well. I did some studies on optimizing this process and that is how we met.


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