The best books on giant space rocks that threaten Earth

Gordon L. Dillow Author Of Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth
By Gordon L. Dillow

Who am I?

In 2016 I was enjoying an early morning cup of coffee on my back porch in Arizona when an eerie red light lit up the dark sky, followed seconds later by a tremendous distant explosion that rattled my cup and set my dogs howling. As a soldier and journalist, I had seen all kinds of human and natural catastrophes and mayhem, but never anything like this. Later I was astonished to learn that this event, which was seen as far away as Texas, was caused by a small asteroid the size of a refrigerator that had exploded in the atmosphere with the energy equivalent of a million pounds of TNT. I wanted to find out more – and I did.

I wrote...

Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth

By Gordon L. Dillow,

Book cover of Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth

What is my book about?

From its earliest formation our planet has been routinely bombarded by space rocks large and small. In fact, collisions between small asteroids and Earth are a daily occurrence. Fortunately, most of the small ones burn up in the atmosphere, and the big ones don’t come around very often. But the question isn’t if another large asteroid or comet will strike the Earth with catastrophic consequences -- the only question is when. It could be a thousand years from now, or it could be next Tuesday. Fire in the Sky takes an accessible and sometimes light-hearted look at the history of these space invaders -- including the six-mile wide asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago -- as well as the ongoing efforts to identify, and if possible deflect, large asteroids that may threaten our planet in the future.

The books I picked & why

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Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us

By Donald K. Yeomans,

Book cover of Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us

Why this book?

The subtitle of this book says it all. As a planetary scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Yeomans’ job was to plot the courses of known and newly-discovered NEOs – that is, asteroids and comets that in space terms come close to Earth’s orbit – and determine if and when they might be on a collision course with our planet. With more than 25,000 known NEOs orbiting around up there, it’s not an easy task. But Yeomans makes the crucial point: it’s not the space rocks we know about that pose the biggest threat, but rather the thousands and thousands of large near-Earth asteroids we don’t know about that are the greatest danger. It’s not like the movie Armageddon; it would take years to develop a space mission to deflect or destroy an incoming asteroid, so it’s crucial that we find and track them – as Yeomans says, before they find us.

Asteroid Hunters

By Carrie Nugent,

Book cover of Asteroid Hunters

Why this book?

This book is about asteroid hunters, written by an asteroid hunter – and she clearly loves her work. Nugent is an assistant professor of computational physics and planetary science at Olin College and worked on NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), which discovered hundreds of Potential Hazardous Objects – asteroids and comets – that could someday threaten Earth. You don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy this book. Nugent patiently walks us through the process of finding and tracking potentially dangerous space rocks with skill and passion for her subject.

Asteroids: A History

By Curtis Peebles,

Book cover of Asteroids: A History

Why this book?

This book is an entertaining look at the history of mankind’s knowledge about asteroids, which began in 1801 with the discovery of the 600-mile wide asteroid Ceres. Today more than half a million asteroids in our Solar System have been identified, while billions more (mostly small ones) are still waiting to be discovered. The vast majority pose no threat to Earth, but they are fascinating anyway. There are asteroids shaped like giant dog bones, asteroids that resemble human skulls, asteroids that have smaller asteroids orbiting around them as they orbit around the sun. Peebles’ book tells you everything you need to know about these space rocks – and more things that you’ll want to know. A thoroughly enjoyable book.

Impact Jupiter: The Crash of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9

By David H. Levy,

Book cover of Impact Jupiter: The Crash of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9

Why this book?

This book is the story of the biggest collision of space objects mankind has ever seen – literally – told by the man who saw it coming. In 1993 Levy was working with astronomers Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker at a mountain-top observatory in California when they spotted a comet that had been captured by Jupiter’s enormous gravity and sucked into orbit around the Solar System’s biggest planet. Levy and the Shoemakers predicted that pieces of the comet would soon strike Jupiter’s surface with almost unimaginable force – which prompted skepticism among some astronomers. But sure enough, in 1994 the comet fragments hit Jupiter’s surface with the collective force of a 50 million megaton bomb – thousands of times the energy of all the nuclear weapons on Earth. The event made us realize that if it could happen to Jupiter, it could happen to Earth – and that we’d better take the space rock threat seriously. It’s a dramatic story, and well told.

Mining the Sky: Untold Riches From the Asteroids, Comets and Planets

By John S. Lewis,

Book cover of Mining the Sky: Untold Riches From the Asteroids, Comets and Planets

Why this book?

This book is about the positive side of Near-Earth Objects – that is, they can benefit mankind as well as threaten it. Lewis explains how asteroids are chock full of valuable minerals – iron, nickel, platinum, iridium, and so on – that are either rare or difficult and messy to extract on Earth. Lewis persuasively argues that it’s not just possible but almost inevitable that Earthlings will eventually start extracting those space rock riches -- not so much to bring them back to Earth but to use them for manufacturing industries in space, thus sparing our planet from much of the pollution that threatens our world. It’s not just futuristic day-dreaming; already private companies are spending big money to develop space-mining technologies. The bottom line of this fascinating book is that there’s gold in them thar hills – or rather, in them thar far reaches of space. And sooner than you think, we’ll be out there looking for it.     

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