The Legacy of Comet 23
10,270 days ago… (28.1 years)
That’s when Larry Klein, astrophysicist and astronomer for the Harvard-Smithsonian, first discovered Comet 2009C23 hurtling past Jupiter. Larry worked out a rough trajectory-tried to figure out whether the comet was headed toward the sun or back out into space. What most impressed Larry was the potential size of this comet. Back in the 90’s Hale-Bopp was considered big at 30km in diameter. But this ice ball was reflecting a ton of light, which was unusual. It could be twice as big as Bopp. And if so, it would be one of the largest on record coming out of the Kuiper belt just beyond Neptune.
Larry reported the discovery to Mike Fleeter at JPL. And it was Mike who confirmed the comet was inbound. No way to tell yet if it was on a collision course with Earth. But they couldn’t
rule out that possibility either. The findings were posted on JPL’s website and mirrored by the Minor Planet Center’s website. There was no cause for alarm.
1 month later, Larry measured the luminosity of the comet’s tail and predicted Comet 23 (short for 2009C23) was indeed big. Maybe 60km in diameter. Mike at JPL confirmed the finding. The trajectory had changed as well. And Mike was able to make a prediction now: Chances of a direct hit with Earth was 1 in 15,000. And the comet was traveling at 18.5km/s (kilometers per second). In eight months it would be in striking range of Earth.
Mike contacted NASA headquarters in Washington. And once the findings hit the NASA website, the media grabbed the story and ran with it…
“WHO IS IN CHARGE OF SAVING EARTH?”
The story ran in every major paper around the globe. Every online news source.
Citizens were terrified.
Doomsday scenarios became mainstream dialogue. According to many, “This was the end of the world.”
The President called for a calm assessment of the situation and a focus on a real solution. But the governments of the world were woefully unprepared. No agency or task force had created a deflection program to deal with an object this large.
The closest NASA had come to a comet was the TEMPEL 1 DEEP IMPACT MISSION. That’s when they rammed a solid piece of mass into the Tempel 1 Comet to see what it was made of. Non-government agencies had proposed deflection programs based on pure kinetic impact-which meant slamming an object into the comet to slightly alter its orbit away from Earth. But a comet this large? You’d have to slingshot the moon at it.
Mike at JPL offered this sobering assessment: When the odds hit 1 in 50, it’s safe to say we’re headed toward extinction. And you’d better do whatever it is you enjoy most. Because we’re going out in a celestial flash.
Terence Murray of the Minor Planets Center didn’t agree. He had a potential solution. It involved the Neutron Bomb. The mention of which started a heated debate throughout the world.
The White House agreed with Terence and announced an immediate and joint effort to be coordinated between NASA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.
NASA accelerated the Ares rocket program which was being designed for the 2017 lunar mission. They retrofitted the rocket with a nuclear warhead supplied by the Department of Defense. As a back up, NASA turned to their competition: The private sector’s Jupiter Launch System and ordered two rockets that would be similarly retrofitted with nuclear warheads.
The President went to Congress to push through a bill called Imminent Demise affording him and any future president the power to act with impunity in the event of such a potential catastrophe.
Congress was split over the risks of launching nuclear weapons into space. No one wanted a nuke blowing up on take-off; especially if the comet might miss us.
Despite heated debate, Congress passed Imminent Demise. The President signed the bill into law and NASA went to work. The clock was ticking.
10,225 days ago…
JPL’s Mike Fleeter (manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program) reported the odds had increased to 1 in 148 of a direct hit. And with less than 6 months until impact, Charlie McGowan, chief project manager for the Department of Defense, reported there was no way to vaporize a comet this large. Even with their most powerful nuclear weapon, the best they could hope for was to use the nuclear blast to vaporize a chunk of the comet and create an outflow of gas that would propel the comet into a new orbit away from Earth. Charlie brought in the Tempel 1 targeting engineers to make sure they didn’t miss.
Detractors didn’t like this plan at all. They said it was futile. The nuclear explosion would only break up the comet into tens of thousands of pieces and spread them across the planet in a fiery mass-each piece with the explosive power of a 10 megaton bomb. Not to mention the likelihood of the nuclear weapon detonating on the launch pad if there was a problem.
Pre-traumatic stress spread like a virus throughout the world. Business productivity plummeted. Citizens were giving up.
An international plea from governments urged citizens to build bomb shelters. Coastal communities distributed evacuation plans and encouraged a mass exodus.
NASA and the Jupiter Rocket Team raced to finish retrofitting rockets. Neither had time to test new lift-off ratios for fuel capacity and weight distribution. Computer models promised success. But all this uncertainty was sending the international community into a panic. Marshall Law was established in most cities to avoid outright anarchy.
10,120 days ago…
With 2 months to impact, Mike Fleeter (at JPL) called Larry Klein (Harvard-Smithsonian) with cautious but hopeful news: Comet 23’s trajectory had changed-odds had dropped to 1 in 3,000. Mike was waiting for confirmation from the Minor Planet Center before he reported to NASA.
Two hours later, the Minor Planet Center concurred. The comet was going to miss Earth!
A flood of relief washed across a jittery global population on the verge of hysteria.
The press signaled an end to the threat. It was official. Earth was saved.
Binoculars and telescopes sold out in a matter of days. Everyone wanted to watch Comet 23 as it blazed beyond our moon.
And with a giddy sense of euphoria, the world watched the spectacular event. Comet 23 passed so close, it was visible with the naked eye. Mike Fleeter confirmed its size at 60km. It
was a behemoth…racing toward its rendezvous with the sun.
A collective sigh of relief. The threat was over.
But it wasn’t the end at all…
10,030 days ago…
Only four short weeks later, Mike Fleeter stunned the world with a revised prediction from JPL. Comet 23 had made a tight loop around the sun and was on a hyperbolic orbit back out into space. Its velocity had increased to 72km/s. And there was a 100% chance it was going to collide with Earth on its way back.
The world went into a full blown panic.
The President announced that Imminent Demise had been re-instituted and that the DOD and NASA were working tirelessly to launch four nuclear tipped rockets at the comet.
They had 4 weeks until impact.
And still there was a massive movement throughout the world to abort the nuclear mission. Many citizens didn’t believe the comet would hit us. And they didn’t want to take the risk of a nuclear disaster.
The Supreme Court and the international courts of the world heard arguments for banning the missile launches.
But for those who understood science, it was no longer a matter of if the comet might hit us; it was a certainty now. Predictive Models for Human Survival started popping up everywhere. And they were dire: 99%-100% extermination of life.
Kim Chan (a theoretical astrophysicist out of Los Alamos) delivered a chilling confirmation: Something as massive as Comet 23 (which was 1/50th the size of the moon) would explode on impact and send fiery debris into the atmosphere. The debris would be a meter thick and blot out the sun, creating a blast furnace that would sterilize the Earth killing nearly every living organism. The heat would melt every glacier and send us into a near perpetual winter that would last years if not decades.
But even more devastating for the long term, Terence pointed out, was that the impact could knock the Earth out of its orbit away from the sun. And if that happened, the climate change wouldn’t be for years…but hundreds of years.
Others spoke hopefully that the comet might be “soft” and made up mostly of frozen gasses. That we might only be dealing with minimal debris, and that the real threat was the resulting tsunami if the comet struck in the ocean.
Kim Chan from Los Alamos had already laid out that eventuality: Comet 23 would rip through the atmosphere and plunge to the bottom of the ocean. Impact would leave a 600km crater and
send a wave 600km long in every direction. That meant a 3,000 foot high wave racing toward the coasts at 500km/h.
Overnight, a mass evacuation began. Satellite photos showed endless trails of people moving inland…away from the coasts…on every continent…hundreds of millions of refugees. Cars were abandoned when there was no more gas to be found. Planes and trains were stranded in airports and stations.
Emergency relief groups were unable to cope. Food and shelter was unavailable. Dehydration claimed the most lives in the early days.
And then the fighting began. What couldn’t be bought or bartered for was fought over. And the strongest and best armed groups banded together and took what they needed to survive.
Neighborhoods became fortresses. Cars became blockades. Food was horded and rationed.
Humanity was in utter disarray. There was little hope if any at all.
And in those last dark days, The Supreme Court ruled against Imminent Demise, stating, “No President had the right to decide the fate of an entire nation of people. Not without a vote by the people.” And then the Chief Justice said something that was unlike anything ever uttered by a Supreme Court Justice…“The President will have to act outside the law but in the interest of the people of the world…and let history judge him for his actions.”
The Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed. It was the President’s call to make. History and the courts of the world would judge him later. If there was anyone left to judge him at all.
10,005 days ago…
The first Ares rocket was launched at sunrise. The second went up four hours later.
Both Jupiter Rockets were launched that evening.
Four rockets in total. Four chances to save the human race.
31 hours later, the first Ares rocket missed the comet by 15,000 miles. NASA and the targeting engineers from Tempel 1 were baffled. It was a young flight engineer named David Sanchez who pointed out that the density of the nuclear tipped rockets may have been the culprit. They had run computer simulations but never received a satisfactory trajectory because of the top-heavy nature of the rocket’s payload.
4 hours later, the second Ares rocket missed. This one by 28,000 miles.
Everyone’s hopes were now riding on the two Jupiter rockets. The engineers turned on the first rocket’s CAMERA as it accelerated toward the bright light that was Comet 23’s nucleus.
The trajectory was holding. The Jupiter engineers had gotten it right. No top heavy design. They jettisoned a probe that hung back and photographed the event.
The entire world was online…watching…
The first rocket missed the comet by a few thousand feet and was absorbed by the comet’s corona. The nuclear detonation was too far away to alter the comet’s course.
The second rocket was dead on. Its nuclear payload detonated in a flash of light.
Out of which came the comet…still on course. Blazing past the probe. The nuclear explosion had detonated too early having no effect on the comet whatsoever.
Now, it was unstoppable.
Chile’s VLT optical telescope tracked Comet 23 as it closed in on Earth.
Preparations were made for the President and his family. Cabinet members and Military leaders were gathered and boarded the Command and Control Aircraft that would go airborne five hours before impact. An aerocade would follow with enough fuel and supplies to keep Air Force One in the air for several days if not weeks.
The President held his last news conference at 0600 hours on the South Lawn of the White House. He asked his countrymen and women to be brave and hold their resolve. This was not the
end. For those who survived, he hoped he would be alive to lead them; it would be a new world that no one could imagine. He wished them all good luck and Godspeed.
In the final dark hours, the waiting was met by a calm dread. The world was quiet. There was nothing left to do.
10,000 days ago…
3:30AM PST – The Protect and Survive Emergency Broadcast transmitted through every radio, television, and computer throughout the world. It played over and over until the words became meaningless and the languages indistinguishable.
Official transcript ~ “This is the Protect and Survive Emergency Broadcast for comet impact. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill. One minute until comet impact in the Pacific Ocean. There is nothing to be gained by trying to escape. Leaving your home will expose you to greater danger. Communications will be severely disrupted. Expected casualties and extent of damage will be severe. We will bring you information as available. Prepare for impact and stay tuned to this wavelength.”
…and then the siren started. The high-pitched signal overwhelmed the broadcast with its incessant nerve-shattering resonance.
4:31AM PST – It was still dark when Comet 23 ripped through the atmosphere. It took less than a second for the comet to plunge 5,000 feet to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Satellite photos captured the impact and transmitted apocalyptic images of fire and debris ejecting from the impact zone.
Surveillance jets within 20 miles of the impact zone were incinerated. Those that followed relayed images of toxic debris billowing into the atmosphere and rolling like a black curtain over the entire planet.
And then they saw the waves-3,000 feet high-rolling at 500km/h toward the coasts. The one headed toward the U.S. hit the Continental Shelf and jumped up to 4,500 feet. An entire squadron of surveillance jets was devoured belly whole by the sudden increase in wave height.
The wave slammed the coasts and ran 600km inland. The great city of San Francisco was gone. The Golden Gate ripped from its century-old moorings. The inland wave didn’t stop until it hit the Rocky Mountains.
The fiery impact melted the glaciers in northern Canada sending a deluge of water south that submerged the Great Planes and turned them into an inland sea.
As planes ran out of fuel, communications began to dwindle. The sky was black with soot a meter thick.
And for those who survived, they had no way of knowing who else survived, how many, or if there was any form of government still intact. The consensus was it was only a matter of time before they too died…from the heat…or the air born pollutants. But one man had a vision of what could be again. He would survive. He would see that his clan survived. His name was William Beck. And this is the story of his clan…
10,000 days in the future.