Happy Lunar New Year, Although New NASA Models Suggest We Might Have Fewer Left


Looking at the world in NASA’s new model makes it easy to see why climate change is a global problem.

This weekend kicked off Lunar New Year celebrations in China and other countries that follow the lunar calendar instead of the Gregorian one used here in the West. Invented by Pope Gregory XIII back in October of 1582, our calendar divides time into a predictable cycle where the days, months and special celebrations always occur at the same time each year. That way, the summer months are always warm and Christmas always happens in the middle of winter. It’s not quite perfect, which is why we have to sometimes insert leap year days into the mix to counter drifting dates. We get one of those this year, by the way.

Because the lunar calendar is about 11 days short of a solar year, New Year’s Day changes in a lunar system. Despite that, the lunar calendar is fascinating, especially the Chinese one that is draped in legend and symbolism. For that calendar, the Jade Emperor supposedly asked 12 animals to compete for his favor and lined them up from the most to the least impressive. Depending on when you were born, you are assigned one of those animals and are supposed to share characteristics with them. The cat, which is an important animal in Chinese lore, didn’t make the contest because his friend (at the time) the rat let him oversleep.

The clever rat not only kept the cat out of the running but also gained the emperor’s favor by playing a tune on his flute while riding around on the back of an ox. For winning the contest, the rat was given the first place on the lunar calendar, beating out much more impressive creatures like the dragon and the horse. His sidekick, the ox, was given second place for helping him out. And the poor cat was replaced by the only other animal the emperor’s staff could find on short notice, which is how the pig ended up in the Chinese zodiac. Cats are said to still be angry about the whole affair, which is why they became so adept at killing rats.

Anyway, I know that was a little bit of a tangent, but I wanted to provide a little background as to why I was so excited that I ended up spending the weekend researching the moon and lunar phases with NASA and other space agencies. You see, 2020 begins a new 12-year lunar cycle, which means that this is the year of the rat. And I happen to proudly be one, a water rat to be precise. So I am looking forward to a really great year.

I was hoping that there might be some science to back up the mythology. And not to be a party-pooper, but sadly, there is not. But it might not matter in the long run, because according to two groups within NASA, the world is in pretty big trouble, although scientists are working on using new technology to try and counter these threats.

The first threat to Earth comes from the same thing that probably killed the dinosaurs, asteroids. And this week is particularly dangerous. On Monday, Jan. 27, NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) group says that not one, but two potentially deadly asteroids passed dangerously close to Earth. 

The first is designated 2020 BN3 by CNEOS and is big at over 100-feet across. Following right behind it is a smaller, slower rock named 2020 BY4. Both are expected to miss Earth, but also regularly pass through Earth’s orbit on their long journey through the solar system and the Kuiper Belt of orbiting asteroids. So if you read this, it means we survived another two close calls.

The problem is that the Kuiper Belt and the even bigger Oort Cloud beyond our solar system contain millions of dirty rocks, and even those in stable orbits like 2020 BN3 and 2020 BY4 can get knocked around, shifting their normal path into a collision course with our planet. The Royal Observatory in Greenwich has a nice video that talks about the dangers. 

NASA has been developing a defense against asteroids, which I wrote about for Nextgov back in 2016 when the program was just being developed. Our planetary defense will rely on our ability to launch a space vehicle that will impact a threatening asteroid and then gently push it away. That’s preferable to blowing it up and then having to deal with smaller chunks still heading our way. Nudging it just a few degrees off course while it’s still far away could cause an asteroid to miss Earth by millions of miles.

And NASA has accelerated this program. The first Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission was originally scheduled for 2025 or beyond, but now is set to launch next year. Its target will be a huge asteroid called 65803 Didymos, which the DART craft will reach in September of 2022. Didymos is so big, at 2,560 feet across, that it even has its own moonlet orbiting it. The moonlet will be DART’s target.

Once connected, DART will activate its unique NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT), which is a fully electric propulsion system. If all goes well, DART will push the moonlet away from its orbit while telescopes and other tracking tools on Earth observe the results. DART also has a high-resolution camera for a close-up look at the mission.

I’m happy that a technology as important as planetary defense is getting fast-tracked. Without some type of defense, it’s really just random luck whether all of us, or at least a lot of us, eventually fall victim to a large asteroid strike.

The asteroid threat is a good one to tackle because it’s a defined problem with a solution that should work. And potentially saving the world is a nice touch. But NASA is raising the alarm on a bigger threat that strikes much closer to home, and one without a perfect solution.

NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office (GMAO) collects massive amounts of data about different gasses and pollutants around the globe. They track smoke and dust, sea-salt concentrations, nitrates, carbonaceous gasses and more. But for the most part, it's just a slew of numbers that must be mined and studied in detail to make sense of it all. NASA is trying to change that.

NASA assembled all of the data collected by GMAO globally between August 2019 and January 2020 and turned it into a fascinating computer model. The time period chosen was an extremely active one for the world’s climate, containing everything from Hurricane Dorian to the terrible rainforest burn in South America and even the ongoing wildfires going on right now in Australia. The model can be viewed chronologically, letting spectators literally watch the world burn.

Looking at the world in NASA’s new model makes it easy to see why climate change is a global problem. Smoke from both the South American and Australian fires trail across the globe, and makes it clear that some damage will be hard to undo. It also offers a sad window into our possible future, or lack thereof, as events like these become increasingly common.

NASA even posted the video on its NASA Climate Change YouTube page, a bold move given the current political climate. But I am glad that the agency did. Threats to Earth don’t just come from outer space. We make some of them ourselves. Perhaps taking mountains of raw data and letting us visualize the dangers of climate change will convince more people to take the threat seriously. I hope so because I want to have quite a few more happy rat years in my future, and I wish the same thing for the rest of my animal cousins.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys