Renu Malhotra, a U of A professor of planetary sciences, wrote a groundbreaking paper in 1993 suggesting that the bombardment was caused by the "migration" of the outer planets to orbits farther from the sun. A sizable portion of the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars fell inward, hitting Earth (among other things) with extra water and organic molecules that are the so-called building blocks of life.

"Asteroids are a double-edge sword," says Malhotra, who's working on how to refine the calculations of their orbits. "They can bring organic material and kick-start life. Then, later on, you can have a big asteroid come and wipe out life."

But not if we can do something about it.

The bright fireball that raced across the Tucson sky on the evening of December 10 won't soon be forgotten by the hundreds of people who saw — and heard — it.

"We felt this absolutely tremendous explosion . . . It shook the windows. It shook everything in the house," Tucson resident Tony Kubrak told a local TV station; his comments were broadcast nationwide by CNN. After hearing the noise, Kubrak said, he went outside: "I see this tremendous white bright light in the western sky."

(It's unclear why Kubrak would hear the noise before seeing the flash, since sound moves much slower than light. He didn't return a call from New Times.)

Some witnesses reported that the meteor looked green; one said it was orange and red.

The size of the object that caused all the fuss, experts say, probably was no bigger than a basketball. No fragments of it were found, though numerous meteorite aficionados combed the desert looking for them.

A fireball, also known as a bolide event if it occurs with a noticeable explosion, is nature's fireworks show. Fireballs stretch far across the night sky and may leave long smoke trails, commanding the attention of those below in their brief life.

The light streaks of meteors and explosions caused by bigger space objects has to do with their great speed. Bennu, for example, is tumbling through space at more than 60,000 miles per hour. In comparison, a bullet from an AK-47 flies at a relative snail's pace, about 1,600 miles per hour. Fortunately, most objects that hit Earth aren't Bennu-size or even as large as the one that hit Chelyabinsk. But a rain of rock always is falling.

The Catalina Sky Survey, a U of A project that began in 1998, finds an average of more than one per night. From one of the project's telescopes in the Catalina Mountains, astronomer Rich Kowalski discovered the first asteroid in 2014 in the first few minutes of New Year's Day, hours before the rock exploded over the Atlantic Ocean.

Not long after reporting its position to the International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center, other scientists calculated that "2014 AA" would hit the planet. The size of a small car, the object is believed to have gone down between Central America and East Africa. No doubt, it created a huge fireball — but no cruise-ship passenger, airline pilot, or anyone else reported seeing it.

It was only the second discovery ever made of an impacting asteroid. Kowalski, who's also a flight instructor and photographer, made the first one, too. He found a 13-footer in 2008 that exploded over Sudan. It was the first asteroid ever to hit the ground that first had been tracked by telescope.

Funding for asteroid-hunting programs in the United States stood at $4.5 million a year until 2010, says Stephen Larson, the project's co-chief. After 2010, it went up to $10 million annually, and astronomers began looking more intently for asteroids as small as 100 meters across.

"These could be a problem for cities," Larson says.

After Chelyabinsk, NASA upped the funding for asteroid sky surveys to $20 million a year. The average yearly budget for the CSS has been about $1 million a year for the past six years.

"Chelyabinsk was probably the best thing we could have asked for," he says. "There were no deaths, but it was close enough to scare people."

Tracking asteroids such as 2014 AA is crucial to helping people move quickly from identification of an Earth-bound rock to figuring out exactly where it will land, Larson says. The whole concept of sky surveys is to "give us time to deflect . . . large objects," he says.

Although Earthlings haven't figured out how to deflect large asteroids just yet, advance warning that one is headed toward a city would give inhabitants time to flee, Larson says.

OSIRIS-REx, the heavily contrived acronym of the U of A project, has a nice ring to it. Osiris was the name the ancient Egyptians gave to their god of the dead. What the acronym stands for is harder to swallow: "Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer."

The project comes as part of a long line of U of A-assisted space missions and asteroid hunting. The university began a serious search for hazardous asteroids at Kitt Peak beginning in 1980 and had important roles in such deep-space explorers as the Voyager spacecraft and Mars probes.

The Kuiper Belt, a collection past the orbit of Neptune, takes its name from U of A astronomer Gerard Kuiper. Michael Drake, another legend in the field, was the university's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory director from 1994 until his death in 2011 and served as principal investigator to the OSIRIS-REx program before Lauretta.

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My Voice Nation Help

OH wow, 2018 is not that far wawy at all man.

Ian Calder Drummond
Ian Calder Drummond

I just moved away from Arizona after 14 years And I am being an asshole.

Lisa Kaiser
Lisa Kaiser

Ian, UA has been involved with the NASA Mars missions, its mirror labs creates mirrors of all the major telescopes around the world, its astronomy program is world-renowned.

Toby San
Toby San

The 'redness' of Maricopa county vs. the 'blueness' of Tucson will be apparent.

Brandon Doyle
Brandon Doyle

If that hits us the grid is gonna go down. Then my dad better watch his back. #souppunch

Jason Stafford
Jason Stafford

Good thing its Arizona and not ASU. Though they could launch a bunch of piss drunk frat boys into the meteor and try an explode it that way.

Geary Morris
Geary Morris

They will intentionally direct it to hit ASU Stadium ;-)

Kit Hunn
Kit Hunn

Can't wait for the slew of comments from Phoenicians attempting to bash Tucson without realising that UofA is involved, if not leading, every major NASA mission.

Ian Calder Drummond
Ian Calder Drummond

Great. We are counting on a college in Arizona to save us ? The professors will probably get drunk in the middle of the project.

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