The sky is never clear of planes. As we can see in real time on the specialized website Flightradar24, every minute there are about eleven thousand aircraft in the air. And throughout the day? The first year in which one hundred thousand daily flights were surpassed was 2014. According to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) report, the 45,091 commercial passenger routes in 2018 carried out nearly forty million flights that carried some 4.4 billion passengers, just under half of the world’s population.
After the astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi (1746–1826) discovered the first asteroid in the early morning that illuminated the 19th century, an eternal, unfinished and impossible account began. While by the end of the 20th century just over twenty-five thousand asteroids had been catalogued, it is estimated that more than a billion remain to be identified. Eternal accounting has only just begun.
Although meteorites have been a threat that has always been above our heads, we have not been aware of its danger until Hollywood remembered it with films such as Meteor, Armageddon and Deep Impact, somewhat failed hybrids between disaster cinema and sci-fi. In them, the respective headliners – Sean Connery, Bruce Willis and Robert Duvall – battle with other heads, this time nuclear, at a gigantic rock that is advancing at full speed, threatening the total destruction of innocent humanity.
Apocalyptic catastrophes on the sidelines, the reality is happily more prosaic. Every day several hundred tons of matter enter the Earth’s atmosphere, most of them in the form of very small meteoroids that advance at supersonic speed but, due to friction, reach boiling temperatures and vaporize before reach the ground like an imperceptible dust. Only the largest retain enough speed to reach the surface and to politely leave a crater as a business card.
A few years ago I met an asteroid hunter, Tom Gehrels, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Using the Spacewatch telescope at kitt Peak Observatory, that veteran astronomer detected nearly twenty thousand orbital rocks every year, many of them uncatalogued. A few talks with him were enough for him to learn how much I know about those pebbles that flutter menacingly over our heads without us being aware of it.
Every time I catch a plane I remember Tom, who pulled out of my head a hado that assaults many who have to fly: how likely is a meteor crash with a commercial plane?
The probability exists, but it is despicable. See. I’m coming to travel to the United States soon, so I’m going to calculate the probability that a meteor will hit my plane while I fly over the country. There are about three hundred million vehicles in the United States. Each vehicle has an average area of 10 m2, which means that, placed next to each other tightly, they would cover an area of about 3 000 km2, more than a third of the territory of the Community of Madrid.
Nowhere have I found the surface of a commercial aircraft, so I’ve calculated it a little to the old one’s account, but always in favor of increasing the surface of the device. As a reference I have taken the superjumbo of the image I attached. Assuming the aircraft was a perfect square, its surface would be calculated by multiplying the length of the nose-to-tail fuselage by the wingspan. In total, about 6 000 m2.
Considering that the wings are narrow, and that giant aircraft like that are the exception and not the norm, you should divide that surface by six from where it would turn out that each commercial aircraft would occupy an area of 1,000 m2. But I don’t want to be a cyclist and I will make my calculations to the maximum: all the planes in the world will be gigantic aircraft (which of course would not be able to lift the flight) of 6 000 m2 each (get an idea of the exaggeration of my calculation: more than half a football field per plane).
How many commercial planes are there in the world? As of July 2016, the global commercial fleet was 19,583 aircraft of more than one hundred passengers, according to the Airbus Global Market Forecast for 2016-2035 report. Well, I ignore their size and I uniformize them all to the maximum I’ve ever taken for the marras superjumbo. The resulting area is 117 km2, or 25.6 times less than the area occupied by all U.S. vehicles.
In 1992, the Peekskill meteorite, photographed at the foot of the rear bumper, hit the car in the photograph. The spectacular fireball crossed several U.S. states during its forty-second glory before landing in Peekskill, New York. NASAThere’s only one known case of meteor impact on a car in the United States during the 20th century, so the odds of one of those heavenly pedruscos hitting the plane I’m moving from New York to Denver are ridiculous. Notice that I have assumed that all the planes in the world (and of an exaggeratedly large size) are flying over American airspace at the same time.
In short, a probability as ridiculous as being hit by the lottery jackpot several times in a row considering that I never play, because as Thomas Jefferson said, I think the lottery is the tax paid by those who don’t know math.
Also, in the event of an impact, it would be more likely to happen to it parked than in flight, because planes spend more time on the ground than flying.
Manuel Peinado Lorca, University Professor. Department of Life Sciences and Researcher at Franklin Institute for American Studies, University of Alcalá
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