Russian astronomers have revealed that a gigantic asteroid, known as 3200 Phaethon will come quite close to the Earth in December. This particular asteroid is thought to cause the Geminids meteor shower which will take place sometime between December 13 and December 14. It will cause hundreds of bright meteors to illuminate the night sky as they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. But NASA isn’t painting such a pretty picture. They are describing it as a “potentially hazardous asteroid whose path misses Earth’s orbit by only 2 million miles”. Which is super tiny in terms of the galaxy.
Is NASA blowing this out of proportion? Not at all. To put this into perspective, this particular asteroid is about half the size of Chicxulub, which is the rock that wiped out the dinosaurs. It has a very unusual orbit which is causing it to pass closer to the sun than any other named asteroid. The good news? This asteroid was actually a lot bigger before. But due to it approaching the Sun one too many times, it has actually crumbled into smaller pieces – which is what is actually causing this meteor shower in the first place.
And if that’s the case, the asteroid itself could be the residue of a comet nucleus. NASA is a bit baffled by the asteroid, which is capable of producing the sort of meteor shower that normally only comes with comets. The asteroid itself is named after Phaethon, the son of the Greek sun god Helios. Ancient myths told the story of how this rather insecure-sounding god was challenged to prove that he was related to Helios, who was said to pull the sun across the sky. In order to prove his divine provenance, Phaethon decided to have a go in his father’s chariot but was unable to control the horses, who ran wild across the sky dragging the hot sun with them. Humanity was almost destroyed in the subsequent chaos, which scorched the Earth and burned vast amounts of vegetation – which is how we got the great deserts of Africa, according to this myth. The Earth was only spared when Zeus blasted the horses with a thunderbolt, killing Phaethon in the process.
Plato had this to say about the myth: “There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story that even you [Greeks] have preserved, that once upon a time, Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.”
What does this mean in terms of the asteroid itself? Maybe nothing, but it is kind of apropos of the current time we live in, isn’t it? I’m not trying to make this political, but there are some interesting correlations that can be drawn. Further, the idea that Phaethon brought the heavens to “rain” down on the Earth is similar to what is happening with this meteor shower. Thankfully this Phaethon will not make its way to Earth this time, but there are likely to be more in the future.