In the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains 20 miles from Hollywood, California, the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, part of NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory, tracks the heavenly bodies whose paths cross ours.
As of Monday, June 12, it had spotted more than 32,143 asteroids in near-Earth orbits. More than 2,340 of them are judged as “potentially hazardous” — and five are predicted to come within a few million miles of us in the coming week.
And in the Jerusalem offices of the Jerusalem Post, Aaron Reich, the paper’s assistant managing editor, pours over the data and translate it into user-friendly stories for the paper, with such eye-catching headlines such as
“Colossal asteroid the size of 99 narwhals to pass Earth Thursday — NASA” (that one ran on Tuesday) and “Titanic asteroid the size of 84 orcas to pass Earth on Monday — NASA” (published on Sunday).
We first spotted Reich’s work in January, when Dr. Robin George Andrews — a science journalist whose book “Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond” came out in 2021 and who is working on another, to be titled “How to Kill an Asteroid” — tweeted out a screenshot of a Jerusalem Post headline “2 asteroids the size of 22 penguins to pass Earth this weekend.” That tweet was retweeted 852 times.
An April 4 headline was a bit more appropriate for a Jerusalem dateline: “Asteroid the size of 787 matzahs set to pass over Earth on Passover.”
In his articles, Reich explains the math behind his calculations. A piece of matzah, for example, is “almost 15 and a quarter centimeters.” With NASA’s smallest estimate of the passing space rock — dubbed asteroid 2023 FM — being 120 meters in diameter, the asteroid can indeed be said to be at least 787 matzahs wide.
Reich grew up in New York and moved to Israel when he was 17. He began writing about space for the Post at the time of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which collided with the asteroid Dimorphos in September 2022 to study the possibility of deflecting asteroids which might threaten the earth.
“I’ve always been fascinated by space, so when I saw something that seemed straight out of Futurama, I knew I had to seize the moment,” he said.
As for the unusual units of measurement, “the real issue is that numbers can just be confusing for some readers,” he said. “A measure of comparison can often illustrate things a lot better than simply saying a standard measurement. I’ve done a lot of different ones in the past, but more people have a general idea of how big a flamingo is than how big 14 meters is.”