Sciency Words: The Torino Scale

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Are you worried about an asteroid or comet smashing into Earth and annihilating human civilization?  Well, you should be worried about that a little bit.  But only a little bit.  Let me tell you about the Torino Scale, and while that won’t put all your fears to rest, it may help put things in perspective.

In the late 1990’s, M.I.T. Professor Richard Binzel came up with a system which he initially called the Near Earth Object Hazard Index.  In 1999, Binzel presented his system to a conference on Near Earth Objects (N.E.O.s) in Torino, Italy.

People at that conference loved Binzel’s idea and voted that the system should be adopted by the scientific community at large. They also voted to rename Binzel’s system the Torino Scale.

The Torino Scale asks two questions about any given N.E.O.: how likely is it to hit us, and how much destructive energy would be released if it did?  Taking those two factors into consideration, the Torino Scale then produces a score between zero and ten.  Zero means we have nothing to worry about.  Ten means “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!  AAAHHHHHH!!!” as the experts would say.

According to Wikipedia, the comet that caused the Tunguska Event would have probably scored an eight, and the asteroid that caused the K-T Event (the event widely believed to have killed off the dinosaurs) would have scored a ten.  Wikipedia also tells me that the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor would have scored a zero, because while that particular N.E.O. was definitely on a collision course with Earth, it’s destructive energy was relatively low (I wonder if the residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia, agree with that assessment).

As of this writing, there are no known N.E.O.s that score higher than zero on the Torino Scale, as least not according to this website from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  It is possible for an N.E.O.’s threat level to change as we learn more about it.  As explained in this article from NASA:

The change will result from improved measurements of the object’s orbit showing, most likely in all cases, that the object will indeed miss the Earth. Thus, the most likely outcome for a newly discovered object is that it will ultimately be re-assigned to category zero.

Sooner or later, another eight, nine, or ten on the Torino Scale will come along.  Fives, sixes, and sevens could also be bad news for us.  But for now, at least within the next one hundred years, it sounds like we probably don’t have too much to worry about.