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The Shattered Windows App: How much will an asteroid impact cost you?

April 13th, 2014 No comments

I was at the Space Apps Challenge in London yesterday. I was part of a group of people interested in the Asteroid challenges with my subgroup (i.e., me) trying to estimate the financial consequences of an impact of a given size at a given location. These open ended hackathons involve a lot of upfront data collection, which for this problem required engineering/physics knowledge and my fellow asteroid enthusiasts included an undergraduate and four web developers (finding one good one is usually hard and here I was surrounded by them).

I worked out a plan for calculating the financial consequences of an asteroid impact and found out lots of useful stuff, but did not get to write any code. So this is a paper implementation.

The Shattered Windows App deals with the impact of asteroids of the kind recently experienced by the Russians in Chelyabinsk Oblast. Most of the existing published work concentrates on the much larger global impact events, which are great for dramatic TV programs and films but make for a boring App (global catastrophes wiping out whole countries have limited scope for localizations that allow users to understand the consequences in their community).

Recently declassified military satellite data and data from the Infrasound network has shown that asteroid impacts generating kiloton airbursts are surprisingly common (4.5E^{-0.6} impacts per annum, where E is energy in kilotons; a megaton event around every 15 years or so).

The energy from an airburst (explosion in the air) generates a shock wave that travels through the atmosphere. The overpressure from this shock wave, if large enough, will smash things, including windows, roofs (the Chelyabinsk event took out a few of these) and complete buildings; people are remarkably resistant to overpressure. I decided to concentrate on windows since these are the most likely to be smashed and flying glass is a huge health hazard.

The Bishopsgate bombing is a good illustration of the impact of a blast on windows, in this case just over 1 ton of equivalent TNT breaking 500 tonnes of glass (£1.4 billion of damage in 2014 money).

The sequence of calculations needed to generate the information that can be fed into a web front end displaying a map of financial cost contours for an event at a given location include:

  • Calculate likely asteroid mass and velocity. Asterank presents a stunning amount of information on known asteroids and all the code is available on github.
  • Calculate the size of the airburst, in kilotons, generated by the impact of an asteroid having a given mass, velocity and angle of atmosphere entry. The paper Earth Impact Effects Program: A Web-based computer program for calculating the regional environmental consequences of a meteoroid impact on Earth follows the herd in discussing huge global events but contains the needed equations (ignore the stuff about crater size and seismic events).
  • Calculate the overpressure at a given distance from the atmospheric airburst. The book The Effects of Nuclear Weapons contains the necessary charts and methods (starting around page 113). The Nuclear Weapons Frequently Asked Questions is also worth reading.
  • Calculate the number of windows/area of glass present at a given distance from the airburst. My thinking here is population density data from the last census to estimate the number of dwellings in a given area and housing window data from the English Housing Survey (69% of dwellings have PVC-U double glazed units) to estimate window/glass totals per dwelling. I am currently assuming that commercial windows can be handled by multiplying the residential totals by some small value (this won’t work for large city centers like London). Pointers to commercial building window data welcome.
  • Calculate value of smashed windows/glass. Previously cited sources give rough figures for the range of overpressures needed to break windows; more accurate information on overpressure needed to smash particular kinds of windows would be useful. A rough calculation can be made by combining all the above calculated information.

All that is needed now is a fancy web front end that allows users to select a known asteroid, select a location (the location reported by a phone’s gps being the default) and display an easy to digest damage map.

Data for other countries, e.g., the US, could also be added.

Thanks to the hosts who kept us well fed and watered. A note for future events: bigger tables would be good and comfier chairs for those not yet experienced enough to have developed the ninja skills needed to hack sitting for long period on hard plastic chairs.

Update: The folks at B612 have paper plans for a more upmarket App in mind; they want to nudge the asteroid so it misses the Earth. I wonder if they will sell ads on the side of the rocket?