01 June 2015

Winning a Lottery vs being Hit by a Meteor?

Meteor Strikes - What are the Odds?

Time for another What are the Odds? This time around we'll check out which is more astronomical – winning the lottery or getting hit by a meteor?

Meteor Strikes - What are the Odds?

Are the odds of winning a EuroMillions jackpot quite as astronomical?

This is a tricky one – yes, you would have to be tremendously lucky to hit the jackpot in any lottery, and more so in one as popular and large as EuroMillions. Those odds have been calculated at a highly elusive 1 in 116 million, but then you are betting on prize stakes as high as €190million, and the same ticket can also win you prizes across 12 more tiers with progressively better chances of returns. But, are these odds comparable a meteor strike? Let’s find out!

Game of chances and hypothesis galore

If you thought EuroMillions is a distant shot, being hit by a meteor is even more so, literally. The necessary calculations should take two different events into consideration; firstly, the odds of a strike, and secondly the odds of it being fatal. Now obviously a meteor doesn't have to pop you on the head like a coconut to kill you. A significant impact can potentially generate a blast wave strong enough to destroy life within a 100 km radius.

Several astronomers and asteroid-nerds have made this calculation, with different assumptions on what constitutes a hit – you can be hit at home, and you can be hit outside it. (It’s just not safe anywhere these days!)

Amateur Math-geek Method 1: By second-hand probability that your house is hit

This is the simplest of the lot. It assumes that about 500 meteors strike the Earth each year on average. And then simply calculates the odds of an average house of size 2,500 square foot being "chosen" out of the whole wide expanse of 5.49 quadrillion square feet for a targeted house-collision by any of the 500 meteorites in a year – which comes to 1 in 2,196,267,379,587 any year.  For an average lifespan of 80 years and 40,000 meteors, that is still less at 1 in 176 trillion!

This skims over the issue of whether or not you are actually inside the house when the event happens, which would give us even lower odds. Also 2,500 square foot is actually a fairly big house to have. If you live in a city – as the majority of the human race does – then you're more likely to have a smaller apartment is invariably smaller than this. Add to this the extra complexity of multiple storeys and already we have a method that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Amateur Math-geek Method 2: By random chance, by surface area occupied

This assumes Murphy’s Law, that if something can go wrong, it will. So, taking this huge leap of pessimistic fate, no matter where you're standing on the planet, you'll get hit by a falling meteor. It breaks down like this; the Earth has a surface area of 510,000,000 square km, of which land accounts for 150,000,000 square km and that an average person occupies at least one square meter (.000001 square km) of space at any given time.

This gives us a possible human casualty ‘universe set’ area totalling 150,000,000,000,000 square meters (150,000 billion). Now, if we assume a population of 7 billion spread out over this maximum possible casualty area, that gives us a 7 billion square meter / 150,000 billion square meter chance, or a 1 in 21,000 chance, that there will be at least one person occupying a particular square meter at any given time.

Assuming any one of the 500 meteors can hit that location in a year, and assuming an average human lifespan of 80 years with 40,000 possible personal meteor collisions, the probability of getting hit by a meteor once in a lifetime is 1 in 40,000. That can compound the odds of being hit by a meteor in a lifetime to (1/21,000) x (1/40,000) or 1 in 840,000,000.

And that is taking a very simplistic approach; even the 500 meteors per year we considered for our quick calculations may be a gross over-estimation. A 1996 scientific study by P.A. Bland published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical estimates “between 36 and 166 meteorites larger than 10 grams to fall to Earth per million square km per year. Over the whole surface area of Earth, that translates to 18,000 to 84,000 meteorites bigger than 10 grams per year. But most meteorites are too small to actually fall all the way to the surface.”

What Does NASA Think?

NASA maintains a risk table for all ‘Near Earth Objects’ that calculates their likelihood of impact for the next 100 years, where asteroids are plotted on the Torino Scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least risk-point and 10 the maximum. Currently, nothing on the table is above a 1, which means an actual impact is calculated as ‘extremely unlikely’. So, large-scale death by cosmic impacts can be pretty much checked off the list. The biggest risk is from Asteroid 2011AG5, which is 140 metres across and has a cumulative impact probability of around 2% between 2040 and 2047.

Past Events

Ann Hodges of Alabama, USA was the only person in recent times to be actually hit by a meteorite. And by recent, we are talking about 1954. The 4-kg meteorite crashed through the roof of her rental home, bounced off a radio, and struck a sleeping Ann Hodges. It burnt her hip in a pineapple sized mark, but did not do any permanent damage. Of course, the meteorite did finally takes its toll on the family in the end, thanks to the ensuing global media frenzy and the 3-way legal circus on ownership of the celestial rock involving their landlady and the US military. Anne later suffered a nervous breakdown, separated from her husband in 1964 and died in 1972 at the age of 52.

Commenting on this incident, Michael Reynolds, author of the book Falling Stars: A Guide to Meteors & Meteorites says "Think of how many people have lived throughout human history, you have a better chance of getting hit by a tornado and a bolt of lightning and a hurricane all at the same time."

Since the Hodges incident, there have been very few accounts of individuals struck by a meteorite. In 1992, a boy in Mbale, Uganda was hit in the head by a 3-gm fragment of a meteorite after bouncing off a banana tree.  A German teenager got a small burn from a pea-sized meteorite in 2009 before it bounced off and created a tiny crater on the ground – so hardly what you'd call Earth-shattering.

How To Avoid Being Hit

If those odds are still not enough to put your worries to rest, you can take extra precautions to ensure you are safe from meteors. First keep an eye out for any news related to any asteroids which may be coming our direction and dates of meteor showers. Keep watching the skies just in case, you shouldn't trust your life to those so-called experts. Maybe we're all doomed and the govenrment don't want to cause a mass panic. You should also stay indoors, or better yet, live in a bunker. You'll also want to sleep with a hard hat on, ideally standing up so as to minimize the surface are you occupy.

Still, if it's going to happen it's going to happen and there isn't much you can do about it. Although statistically speaking, it's not going to happen. You might as well worry about being killed in a Sharknado, I mean sure in theory it's impossible, but it's also highly unlikely. 

Winning EuroMillions, meanwhile, is far more probable an outcome. In all of human history we've got just a handful instances of people being hit with meteors, only one of which was large enough to cause any injury. Meanwhile hundreds of EuroMillions jackpots have been won since 2004. Add to that all those lower division prize amounts and it's plain to see why it makes far more sense to concentrate on winning EuroMillions than worrying about meteor strikes.

Real Occurrences Versus Predictions

Anne Hodge’s freak non-fatal meteorite hit apart, there has been nothing in documented history that points to death by celestial accident. The only fatalities we can attribute to meteor strike are the dinosaurs, and that still remains just one of several extinction theories.

Detritus from aborted/unsuccessful satellite and space missions has been known to fall back on Earth, though generally that stuff burns up quickly as it re-enters our atmosphere. A meteor did land in Russia in 2012 and injured some 1,200 people indirectly on impact. Shooting star events and small burnt-out rock particles from outer space enter Earth and are reduced to harmless stardust every day. A meteorite hit that injures or kills, however, is an extremely rare phenomenon – and that is understating it by a very long shot!

As we've seen not only are these events unlikely, the chances of accurately calculating those odds are equally astronomical (no pun intended). Winning the lottery, however, is far more probable an occurrence and, since there are a fixed amount of variables, it's therefore far more straightforward to calculate.


Which would you rather focus on, the doom and gloom of a distant doomsday scenario, or the far more likely prospect of winning EuroMillions?

Fact is we've got a global network of government agencies, research facilities and astronomers all tracking the skies all the time, so it's not like anything is going to skip by them all. And if one does come our way all we need do is send Bruce Willis up there to kick some asteroid ass. 

The lowest prize in EuroMillions is just 23:1 and you have odds of less than 12:1 of winning any prize – indeed, aside from the large jackpots, this frequency of wins is one of the main reasons why EuroMillions is so popular. And, just to ensure no cosmic rocks come knocking on your skull you need never leave the house if you play EuroMillions online!

This coming Friday, June 5th, will be the date of the long awaited summer Superdraw when the jackpot will be raised to €100 million. Forget the queues and last-minute running during the Friday evening rush hour – who needs that hassle? Not when you can buy your tickets ahead of time with the click of a button right by playing EuroMillions here at Lottoland.