by John Tiffany
The Barnes Review
Volume X, Number 4 - July/August 2004
The universe is a very dangerous place,
as historians, astronomers and others are discovering. Impacts of
massive objects from outer space—meteorites, comets and
asteroids—have played a key role in the prehistory of Earth, and
have also affected historical times—in ancient Egypt, for example.
Such incidents have at times been catastrophic, and could well be so
again in the near future. A serious enough incident could cause
Earth to become a dead planet, with possibly only bacterial life
There are billions of comets, according to scientists, in what is
called the Oort Cloud, in the farthest reaches of the solar system.
Some of these may be supercomets (rather euphemistically called “ice
dwarves”), frightening monsters that can be hundreds of miles in
diameter; a few even up to approximately 600 miles have now been
observed in the Kuiper Belt, half the diameter of Pluto.
And from time to time, these comets and
supercomets are disturbed from their normal orbits and come
traveling into the inner solar system, where the Earth resides.
A variety of gravitational influences are thought to play a part in
perturbing Oort Cloud objects so that their new orbits carry them
into the inner Solar System. These include passing stars, so-called
“giant molecular clouds” (or GMCs, which are poorly named, as they
have a lot more than just molecules in them, including, probably,
giant planetoids and protostars; obviously they have very little
resemblance to earthly clouds) and tidal forces due to the galactic
bulge and spiral arms of the Milky Way.
For example, according to The
Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy and Spaceflight:
A star that approaches the Sun to
within roughly the distance of the Oort Cloud might increase the
rate of comet passages near the Earth by a factor of 300 for 2
to 3 million years, so greatly increasing the risk of a
Astronomers believe there may well exist
also interstellar comets, attached to no star, whizzing around in
the galaxy at incredible speeds, perhaps heading our way.
A typical solar system comet might have a velocity of 150,000 miles
per hour when it nears the Earth. The kinetic energy is so
tremendous that an impact would be comparable to a hydrogen bomb
explosion for even a very small comet.
Astronomers tell us that there are more than 100,000 “near-Earth”
asteroids large enough to threaten our planet with an impact greater
than the largest H-bomb ever built. Furthermore, there is about one
chance in 10 that an object of this type could hit the Earth
sometime in the next 100 years.
Besides comets and asteroids, there are believed to be some very
peculiar objects that could hit the Earth, and may already have done
so. For example, “strangelets” composed of quark matter could be
traveling in our vicinity at speeds of 900,000 miles per hour. The
density of such a strangelet would be 10 million million times that
Scientists have found that our planet has experienced cyclic
episodes of bombardment and extinction at regular intervals during
the past 100 million years—specifically 94.5 million years ago, 65
million years ago (the event causing the extinction of the dinosaurs
and many other species), and 36.9 million years ago. The cycle has a
basic “heartbeat” of 30 million years with the standard deviation of
each individual episode being 9 million years.
In plain English this means that if you look at the cycle over a
long enough period of time—several hundred million years—you will
find that linked bombardment and extinction episodes do occur at
roughly 30-million-year intervals, but that the gap may become as
small as 21 million years in some cases, or as large as 39 million
years in others.
Returning to the last 100 million years we find that the intervals
between extinction events have been consistently within this range.
Between 94.5 million years ago and 65 million years ago the figure
works out at 29.5 million years. Between 65 million years ago and
36.9 million years ago the figure works out at 28.1 million years.
Since we know that the bombardments are
caused by waves of galactic material that swamp the entire solar
system—not just near-Earth space—we think it is a good guess that
Mars, and the Moon, would have experienced bombardment episodes,
pretty much in tandem with Earth, at around 94.5, 65 and 36.9
million years ago. This has already been confirmed in the case of
It is very likely, from the available evidence, that Mars and Earth
and their moons experienced bombardment episodes at around 94.5, 65,
and 36.9 million years ago. The reader will note that the final
interval, from 36.9 million years ago up till today, is longer than
the previous two. Indeed, it is dangerously close to extreme upper
limit of the cycle—39 million years.
We could be nearing the end of what is already beginning to look
like an atypical and overlong period of quiescence.
Those (notably including most establishment astronomers) who
believed that comets are harmless received a startling wakeup call a
few years ago. On July 16, 1994, a small, fragmented comet called
Shoemaker-Levy crashed into Jupiter. The second alone of the 20
fragments caused a blast equivalent to 250 million tons of
TNT—several times more powerful than all the Earth’s nuclear
arsenals put together. If this small comet had hit the Earth instead
of Jupiter, it is horrible to think what damage it would have
caused. It began to dawn on everyone that the Earth is a vulnerable
planet under sometimes-angry skies.
Actually astronomers should not have been so surprised. They had the
prior example, on June 25, 1178, of the so-called Canterbury Event,
when observers saw a strange phenomenon on the Moon, what could only
have been the cataclysmic results of a collision between the Moon
and some large object flying through space, such as a comet or
It was determined in 1976 by American
astronomer Jack Hartung that this impact carved out the lunar crater
known as Giordano Bruno—named, ironically, for the Italian heretic
burned at the stake in 1600 for professing the existence of
inhabited planets other than Earth. It was a narrow escape for
Earth, since the bolide,1 whatever it was, could very easily have
hit our planet, a significantly larger target than the Moon.
Had it done so, it could have made a
crater some seven miles in diameter, like the one it did make on the
Moon. The “near Earth object” involved here is calculated to have
been about a mile and a quarter in diameter, and exploded with the
energy of an incredible 100,000 megatons of TNT. It is easy to see
why some historians think civilization could have easily been wiped
out in 1178 had the bolide hit the Earth instead of the Moon.
Then there was another “warning shot,”
the Tunguska Event in Siberia
on June 30, 1908. The analysis of tree samples in the area by
Menotti Galli of the University of Bologna in 1991 turned up
powerful concentrations of copper, gold and nickel, suggesting that
the object, which exploded in the sky without causing a crater, was
a meteor or comet fragment, and not (as some had speculated) a black
hole, a piece of antimatter or a malfunctioning alien saucer
When the object exploded, about 7:17 a.m., it caused a deafening
noise that could be heard 200 miles away. Over Tunguska, a flame or
pillar of fire shot up to a height of 12 miles, followed by a giant
mushroom cloud of smoke from the burning forest. An area of about
4,000 square miles of forest was devastated.
Thousands of trees were smashed down and
left lying on the ground pointing away from “ground zero,” while
others were snapped in half or stripped of all their foliage. A
reindeer herd of 1,500 animals was exterminated; just a few roasted
carcasses were ever found. Had this catastrophic event occurred over
Moscow or New York City, history would have been different.
Mars is another case in point. If you study the surface of the
planet, it seems that nearly the entire crust is somehow missing
from one Martian hemisphere. Was it blown off in a tremendous impact
with a “near Mars object”? Additionally, recent robotic explorations
of the red planet have confirmed what was already pretty clear: Mars
once had vast quantities of surface water, making it a planet
apparently suited for life of some sort.
It may also have had more
of an atmosphere before the great impact.
What happened to the higher forms of life on Mars, if such ever
Were they destroyed along with half the planetary surface?
And did this occur recently—perhaps only thousands of years ago?
used to be thought that Mars was killed millions of years ago, but
now scientists are not so sure.
We are living on borrowed time, indeed. So, while the sky may not be
falling at present, the reader should listen with a grain of salt to
those optimists who say not to worry, because nothing serious is
going to happen for millions or billions of years. And perhaps the
ancients could have told us something about this danger.
ARCHEOASTRONOMY & THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS
The ancient Egyptians seem to have known an astounding amount about
the universe, which modern Western science is only beginning to
learn. But their knowledge is expressed in somewhat obscure, poetic
language. The Egyptians depicted the Sun, for example, as a voyager
upon the waters of the abyss, which can be taken as representing the
vast emptiness of outer space:
Men praise thee in thy name of Ra. .
. . Millions of years have gone over the world; I cannot tell
the number of those through which thou hast passed. . . . Thou
dost pass over and dost travel through untold spaces requiring
millions and hundreds of thousands of years to pass over. . . .
Thou steerest thy way across the watery abyss to the place that
thou lovest . . . and then thou dost sink down and make an end
Although the text is from
The Book of
the Dead, the ideas it expresses are strikingly similar to those of
modern astronomers. Western scientists have learned that everything
in the universe, including the Sun, is in motion.
As the Sun makes its way around the
galactic nucleus, it is indeed a traveler through “untold spaces”
that require literally millions of years to “pass over.”
(But one must wonder how the ancient
Egyptians knew this. Did they preserve the knowledge of an even more
ancient civilization, whose very name has been lost to us? There is
a school of thought that there may have been a global civilization,
possibly during the last ice age, which perished in a cataclysm but
may have left some traces of its existence and accumulated wisdom.)
A number of different motions are involved in the movement of the
Sun, some of which affect the risk of a disastrous impact involving
the Earth and a large comet or asteroid. Drawing with it the entire
solar system, including of course all the comets of the Oort Cloud
and the Kuiper Belt, the Sun is locked in a vast orbit around the
galactic nucleus of the Milky Way, completing each revolution in a
period of approximately 250 million years.
Traveling at the fantastic speed of
about 140 miles per second, it has recently passed through the Orion
spiral arm of our galaxy, on the inner edge of which it now stands.
There is a lot more to the orbit of the Sun than this, but the
interested reader may turn to some astronomy textbooks or web sites
for detailed information.
As the Sun passes through spiral arms of the galaxy, and through
giant molecular clouds, the comets are perturbed, and some are
caused to head into the inner solar system, where the Earth and its
neighbors reside. Over time, the comets break down into meteors,
possibly asteroids and other fragments, which can then rain down on
Ancient Egypt preserved complex beliefs concerning the cyclic
creation and destruction of worlds. The little-known Edfu Building
Texts speak of a remote golden age, many thousands of years earlier,
when the gods themselves lived on an island—the “Homeland of the
The texts tell us this island was
utterly destroyed in a terrible storm and flood caused by “a great
serpent.” The majority of the “divine inhabitants” were drowned, but
the survivors of the cataclysm settled in Egypt, where they became
known as the “Builder Gods,” who fashioned in the primeval time, the
“Lords of Light.”
According to the Edfu texts, it was
these survivors who set out the foundations of all the future
pyramids and temples of Egypt and who handed down the religion that
would much later be practiced throughout the land under the
semi-divine rule of the pharaohs.
The benben was a sacred black metallic stone at Heliopolis that
symbolized the primeval mound. Related to it was the Egyptian
phoenix, called the benbennet or bennu bird. The benben was probably
an iron meteorite, and the benbennet may have also symbolized a
comet (both “fly” across the sky).
The benben is believed to be the
forerunner and model for the famous obelisks and pyramids of Egypt.
The gilded capstone placed at the top of each pyramid or obelisk was
known as a benbenet. The original stone at Heliopolis was believed
to have been the point at which the rays of the rising sun first
fell, and its cult appears to date back to the first dynasty, if not
Utterance 600 of The Pyramid Text says:
“O Atum-Khoprer, you became high on
the height, you rose up as the bnbn-stone in the Mansion of the
Phoenix at On.” 2
It has been suggested by Graham Hancock
that the Egyptian phoenix may symbolize a comet, and the benben
stone might be an asteroid or mega-metorite spawned by that killer
The Gnostic texts, written down in Egypt in the early centuries of
the first millennium after Christ, tell us that the global cataclysm
remembered as the Flood of Noah was not inflicted by God to punish
evil but was worked by the forces of darkness to punish antediluvian
humanity for having aspired to a high state of scientific and
spiritual development and “to take the light” that was growing among
men. This the darkness in very large part succeeded in doing.
It was not only the ancient Egyptians who were keen on observing and
predicting collisions between the Earth and objects from outer
Duncan Steel, director of Spaceguard Australia and vice president of
the Spaceguard Foundation, hypothesizes that Stonehenge I (the
earliest known incarnation of Stonehenge, which was followed by
Stonehenge II and Stonehenge III) may have been constructed by the
Windmill Hill people (a British group that preceded the Beaker
people, who in turn preceded the Kelts) as a specialized observatory
that enabled the ancient Britons to predict Earth’s collisions with
trails of cometary debris, which may have been accompanied with
multiple Tunguska-type events.
He further suggests that upon the
prediction of such events, the people hid in the shelters we now
call long and round barrows, and that the later developments at
Stonehenge (phases II and II) by the Beaker people were a result of
a misinterpretation of the original purpose of the site in terms of
lunar and solar observations.
Cometary impact is gaining ground as an explanation of the collapse
of civilizations, writes Benny Peiser, a historian and
anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University.
At around 1200 B.C., many civilizations collapsed at about the same
The reasons for these widespread and apparently
disasters—which coincided also with changes of cultures and
societies elsewhere, such as in Britain—have long been a mystery.
Traditional explanations include warfare, famine, and more recently
“system collapse,” but the apparent absence of direct archeological
or written evidence for causes, as opposed to the effects, has led
many archeologists and historians into a resigned assumption that no
definite explanation can be found.
Some decades ago, the hunt for clues passed largely into the hands
of natural scientists. Researchers began to find a range of evidence
that suggested that natural causes, rather than human actions, might
have been initially responsible. There began to be talk of climate
change, volcanic activity and earthquakes—and some of this material
has now found its way into standard historical accounts of the
Some researchers favored one type of natural cause, others favored
another, and the problem remained that no single explanation
appeared to account for all the evidence.
Over the past 15 years or so, however, a “new” type of natural
disaster has been much discussed and is beginning to be regarded, by
many scholars, as the most probable single explanation for
widespread and simultaneous cultural collapse, but not only in the
Bronze Age but at another times as well.
The new theory—which is that these
cultural disasters were caused by the impact of comets or other
types of cosmic debris on the Earth—has been advanced largely by
astronomers and remains almost unknown among archeologists (notable
exceptions include dendrochronologist Prof. Mike Baillie of Queen’s
University, Belfast, and Dr. Euan MacKie at Glasgow University).
The hunt for natural causes for these disasters began when the
eminent archeologist Claude Schaeffer of France published Stratigraphie Comparée et chronologie de l’Asie occidentale (1948).
Schaeffer analyzed and compared the destruction layers of more than
40 sites in the Near and Middle East, from Troy to Tepe Hissar on
the Caspian Sea. He was the first scholar to detect that all had
been totally destroyed several times—apparently in simultaneous
waves of destruction. (The fact is still little recognized.)
Because the damage was excessive and did not show signs of military
or other human involvement, he argued that earthquakes might have
been the factor responsible for these cataclysms. Schaeffer,
however, for some reason, was not taken seriously at the time by the
world of science.
But since then, scientists have found
widespread and unambiguous evidence for abrupt climate change,
sudden sea level changes, catastrophic inundations, widespread
seismic activity and evidence for massive volcanic activity at
several periods since the last ice age.
Scholars who, following Schaeffer, favor earthquakes as the
principal cause of civilization collapse argue that the world can
expect vast earthquakes every 1,000-2,000 years, leading to
widespread abandonment of cities. Scholars who prefer climate change
as the principal cause argue that severe droughts caused agriculture
But what was the underlying cause of these earthquakes, eruptions,
tidal waves, fires and climate changes? In a pioneering book,
Bombarded Earth, René Gallant of Belgium suggested an
By the late 1970s, British astronomers
Victor Clube and Bill Napier of Oxford University had begun to
investigate cometary impact as the ultimate cause. In 1980,
physicist Luis Alvarez and his colleagues published their famous
paper in Science that argued a cosmic impact had led to the
extinction of the dinosaurs.
They showed that large amounts of the
element iridium present in geological layers dating from about 65
million B.C. had a cosmic origin.
Alvarez’s paper had immense influence and stimulated further
research by such British astronomers as Clube and Napier, Prof. Mark
Bailey of the Armagh Observatory, Duncan Steel of Spaceguard
Australia and Britain’s best-known astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle. All
now envisage trains of cometary debris, which repeatedly encounter
Tiny particles of cosmic material penetrate the atmosphere every
day. But occasionally, cosmic objects measuring between 100 and
several hundred yards in diameter or more strike the Earth, and
these can have catastrophic effects on our ecological system,
through multimegaton explosions that destroy natural and cultural
features on the surface of the Earth by means of tidal-wave
“floods,” fire blasts and seismic damage.
Asteroids or comets that puncture the upper atmosphere can either
strike the Earth’s surface and leave an impact crater, such as the
well-known Barringer Crater (which used to be called “Meteor
Crater”) in Arizona, caused by an iron asteroid some 50,000 years
ago. At least 10 impact craters around the world date from after the
last ice age.
Alternatively, bolides can explode in the air. A recent example—the
Tunguska Event (explained earlier)—occurred in 1908 over Siberia,
when a bolide exploded about three miles above ground. The cosmic
body, although thought to have measured only 60 yards across, had an
impact energy of about 20 to 40 megatons, up to three times as great
as the Arizona example (about 15 megatons), and was equivalent to
the explosion of about 2,000 Hiroshima-size nuclear bombs—even
though there was no actual physical impact on the Earth’s surface.
(The object that destroyed the
dinosaurs, by comparison, is thought to have had a diameter of about
A smaller cometary blast, with some
puzzling aspects, occurred over the upper Amazonian Brazilian
rainforest in 1930, and evidently involved three separate bolides.
Another space object struck British Guiana in 1935, and Brazil was
hit again in 1995 in the northeastern state of Piaui.
Until recently, the astronomical mainstream was highly critical of
Clube and Napier’s giant comet hypothesis. However,
the crash of
comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter in 1994 has led to a change in
attitudes. The comet, watched by the world’s observatories, was seen
split into 20 pieces and slammed into different parts of the planet
over a period of several days. A similar impact on Earth would have
According to current knowledge, Tunguska-like impacts occur every
100 years or so. It is, therefore, not farfetched to hypothesize
that a super-Tunguska may occur every 2,000, 3,000 or 5,000 years
and would be capable of triggering ecological crises on a
continental or even global scale. In the past, skeptics have
demanded the evidence of a crater before they would accept an
argument of cosmic impact, but it is now understood that no crater
is necessary for disastrous consequences to ensue.
What does the future hold?
No one can say. But for a certainty, the
government should be pouring a larger portion of its space money
into monitoring near-Earth objects and preparing methods to avert
danger by deflecting the objects or by some other means. (NASA
spends less than one-thousandth of its budget on this problem, even
though it could spell the end of civilization.)
Astronomers tell us that
designated as 2001PM9 might hit the Earth in 2005, not giving us
much time to prepare. They also warn that another object,
is due to impact the Earth in 2019. In the more distant future,
asteroid 1950DA is expected to hit Earth in 2880. Let us hope we
have a few centuries or at least a few decades to prepare for what
increasingly seems to be an inevitability.
Alvarez, Walter, T. Rex and the
Crater of Doom, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New
Budge, E.A. Wallis, The Egyptian
Book of the Dead, London & New York, Arkana, 1986.
Hancock, Graham, The Mars
Mystery: The Secret Connection Between Earth and the Red
Planet, Crown Publishers, New York, 1998.
James, Peter, and Thorpe, Nick,
Ancient Mysteries, Ballantine Books, New York, 1999.
Robinson, James M., The Nag
Hammadi Library, New York, Brill, 1988, 165.
Steel, Duncan, Target Earth,
Readers Digest, Pleasantville, New York, 2000.
1. Here the term “bolide” (which
comes, after all, from the Greek word for “missile” or something
thrown) is used as a generic label for impacting objects of
2. Vowels are sometimes not shown in Egyptian transcriptions.
Thus we have “bnbn” here for what we would pronounce “benben.”