Asteroid Day lands at Cranbrook this weekend

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 7, 2015

 A T. rex track stretching 83 centimeters will be on display at Cranbrook Institute of Science this weekend during the events celebrating Asteroid Day.

A T. rex track stretching 83 centimeters will be on display at Cranbrook Institute of Science this weekend during the events celebrating Asteroid Day.

Photo provided by John Zawiskie, Cranbrook Institute of Science

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BLOOMFIELD HILLS — In case you didn’t have it marked on your calendar, last Tuesday, June 30, was Asteroid Day.

While it might not be an occasion observed by many, Cranbrook Institute of Science couldn’t let it pass without a celebration. On Saturday, the public is invited to take in a lecture from noted experts, explore artifacts, pose for pictures with dinosaur tracks, and have an out-of-this-world good time at an event dedicated to all things asteroid.

“If you’ve never held a rock from outer space, this is for you,” said John Zawiskie, curator of earth and life sciences at the institute.

The geologist and paleontologist said that over the years, Cranbrook has amassed the state’s largest collection of genuine meteorites and asteroid impact glass — known as tektites — that can serve to educate visitors on the wonders of the universe, the history of our planet and even the origins of all life.

“(Asteroids) are leftovers from the early formation of the solar system, and parts of them rain down on Earth all the time as meteorites,” said Zawiskie. “Some of these meteorites contain amino acids and DNA bases. The building blocks of life are actually thermodynamic products out in space.”

Scientists estimate that there are millions of these info-packed gems zipping about our solar system, though we’ve only discovered about 1 percent of them, and all have the potential to strike Earth at some point. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, Zawiskie warned.

“One of the largest mass extinctions happened pretty much thanks to a collision of a 10-kilometer asteroid colliding with the planet near the Yucatan Peninsula,” he said, explaining that the dust kicked up from the asteroid’s crash in the desert hung in the air so long that the sun was blocked, killing the plant life that sustained the dinosaurs.

“Without this asteroid striking Earth, it would be pretty doubtful that we would be here, actually — if ecosystems hadn’t been wiped out, with mammals being survivors, and of course we evolved from mammals.”

Evidence of that massive asteroid, which Zawiskie himself helped to dig out from the earth, will be on display at the institute this weekend, along with one of the largest T. rex tracks ever discovered and meteorites recovered from historical impact sites in Siberia and western Russia, along with less severe landings documented in Michigan and Canada.

Visitors can also learn how to distinguish meteorites they might find in a session called “Meteorites/Meteor ‘Wrongs.’”

The idea behind the event, he explained, is to help visitors feel a little bit more connected with the awe-inspiring universe in which they reside. But that’s not the only impression the scientist is hoping guests come away with. Unlike most of the world’s natural disasters, technology has made it possible to potentially prevent asteroid impacts if they are discovered in time. Tracking and mapping the asteroid’s travel is vital to predicting when Earth might be hit.

“The Asteroid Day movement picked up with the idea that museums and other organizations can transfer knowledge not just to heighten people’s awareness of asteroids, but also bringing this point home, too, about the mapping of them,” he said. “We got involved with that, and we’re one of 50 sites globally to host an Asteroid Day event for this purpose.”

Why is it so important to keep an eye out for asteroids? After all, there’s only a 30 percent chance of an incoming asteroid impacting land, since 70 percent of our planet’s surface is covered in water.

“But if one lands in an ocean, there’s potential of wiping out New York on one side and London on the other with giant tsunami waves,” Zawiskie explained.

Before frightening images from the movie “Armageddon” cloud your mind, don’t worry: Institute organizers have made sure that the day will be packed with family-friendly activities designed to inspire, not intimidate.

“It’s something fun and topical for the summer, and this is a topic everyone loves,” said Stephen Pagnani, head of communications for Cranbrook Educational Community. “To touch a meteorite is really exciting and not something you get to do every day. There really isn’t anyone of any age that isn’t intrigued by this concept of things coming in from space and landing here.”

All Asteroid Day events, which will be held from noon-4 p.m. July 11, will be free with museum admission, with the exception of planetarium programs. For more information on Asteroid Day, visit www.asteroidday.org.

Cranbrook Institute of Science is located at 39221 Woodward Ave. in Bloomfield Hills.

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