This post was originally published on Scientific American
FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE—After more than a month of attempts to contact the reclusive hero, reports are coming in today from the icy home of global do-gooder Superman that he intentionally let the meteor that impacted Chelyabinsk, Russia on February 15th enter the atmosphere and explode.
Residents of Chelyabinsk were baffled by how a sworn protector of Earth could let a dangerous foreign object enter human-occupied space without his intervention. Some news outlets have speculated that the meteor contained trace amounts of Kryptonite, deterring the hero. Pundits worldwide have claimed that Superman wanted to start a nuclear war with Russia, and therefore let the rogue rock explode, injuring over a thousand.
News outlets around the world gathered today for Superman’s press conference looking for answers. But what happened next astonished reporters. Superman, going against his “tough hero” personae, grabbed a cup of coffee, put on some oddly familiar glasses, and began explaining why he acted as he did.
“It’s all a matter of physics.”
The Punch Heard ‘Round the World
“Updated reports from our astronomers tell us that the Russian meteor was approximately 55 feet (17 meters) across and weighed 10,000 tons,” remarked Superman. “Before you paint me to be a villain here, let me point out that these values made it perfectly reasonable for me to let the meteor enter Earth’s atmosphere.”
Sources close to Superman told reporters on the scene that he also has a super intellect, and did the calculations just to be sure. Pulling out a whiteboard, Superman showed exactly what would have happened if he flew out to meet the meteor and punched it.
“Although the case can be made that astronomers probably should have seen this coming, neither they nor I reacted quickly enough,” said Superman. He added, “By the time I would have made it to the skies over Chelyabinsk, I would have either had to slow it down or destroy it.”
Superman made the case to reporters that simply slowing down the meteor would have had nearly the same effect as what the residents of Chelyabinsk experienced. After all, the meteor was clocked at a speed of 40,000 miles per hour.
“Attempting to slow it down would have burned it up anyway, my super arms would effectively be just more atmosphere in its way.”
At this point during the press conference sources indicate that there was an outcry from those in attendance. Reporters shouted at the hero, demanding to know why, if he refrained from slowing it down, that he didn’t just destroy it.
Superman drew for reporters a simple equation showing just how much energy the Russian meteor had. “At the speed it was going, the meteor contained around 440 kilotons (of exploded TNT) of energy,” he explained.
“That is the same amount of energy contained in all the lightning in a severe thunderstorm.”
Superman, who seemed to know a fair bit about reporting, used the International Space Station (ISS) to convince reporters during the conference that smashing the meteor with a super punch would be a terrible idea. “This meteor entered the atmosphere with 170 times more kinetic energy than the ISS has while orbiting the Earth,” he exclaimed. Superman continued, “thankfully, the atmosphere absorbed most of the meteor’s energy, with only the aftermath of the fireball doing damage to Chelyabinsk.”
The hero noted that only around 20% of the meteor’s energy went into shaking the city, still blowing out windows and crumbling buildings.
“If I released all of the meteor’s energy at once by destroying it, I would have made it much worse.”
“We can only speculate, as no one has ever exploded a bomb of that size at that height,” said the Man of Steel, “but if I punched the meteor where it disintegrated over Chelyabinsk, I probably would have killed people.”
Superman went on to explain to reporters that the closest approximation for what would happen if he punched the Russian meteor would be the nuclear tests conducted by the US in the 1960s. The “Bluegill Triple Prime” test exploded a 410-kiloton nuclear device 31 miles above the Earth. And because astronomers have settled that the Russian meteor exploded at around 15 miles above the Earth, Superman claimed that he needed to “let the atmosphere handle this one.”
“Even though the nuclear blast from ‘Bluegill Triple Prime’ was twice as high, nuclear researchers at ground zero could feel the heat on the ground and two of them even got retinal burns,” the Kryptonian pointed out. “You could imagine what would happen if I basically set off a bomb of the same size with my fist at only half the height above Chelyabinsk.”
Upon hearing the rationale, most of the reporters at the press conference concluded that Superman was right: it was better to let the meteor undergo a slow burn rather than a massive nuclear-like explosion. Kal-El, as he is apparently known on his home planet, assured everyone in attendance that he would definitely handle the big stuff if it came along.
“I would punch Apophis into the Sun if it came to that.”