Haulin' asteroid in Iowa

By Phil Plait | July 11, 2008 2:00 pm

So I’m out on my bike and I see a UHaul van parked on the road. I like the artwork they put on the sides of the vans; it’s always about some attraction from a specific state. In this case, the state was Iowa, and I was pretty surprised to see this picture:

UHaul van for Iowa showing a crater

How cool is that? 70 million years ago, Manson, Iowa got smacked hard by a rock that must have been a few kilometers across at least; the crater is over 40 km in diameter.

But what’s totally cool is they put an equation — an actual equation! — on the van:

equation on UHaul truck

How hawesome is that? I didn’t know what the terms in the equation are for (this ain’t my bag, baby) so I asked my buddy Dan Durda, about whom I have talked extensively in the past. He studies asteroid impacts, and told me that the equation gives you how far the ejecta — the splattered materials from the impact — will travel. Rb is the ballistic range of the material, or how far it will travel (neglecting air resistance and such). Rp is the radius of the planet — in this case, Earth. Ve is the speed (not velocity, and Dan threatened me over this, so I wanna be very clear) the material is ejected, g is the Earth’s gravity, and Φ (the Greek letter phi) is the angle from horizontal at which the material is ejected. When you crank all that stuff through (and don’t forget the arctangent!) you see how far the impact throws material.

Even more cool: this equation accounts for the curvature of the Earth. There is a simpler version that assumes a flat surface, but UHaul chose the more complex one.

I think it is totally excellent of UHaul to do this– I learned stuff, and I love to learn stuff.

You can learn more about Manson here, if you want some snark with it. UHaul has a t-shirt with the Iowa art on it for sale too. For $10 it ain’t bad.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (66)

  1. Cheyenne

    What a fun and creative way to do some advertising. I checked out their website and they have some others that seem pretty interesting.


    BTW BA – The one for Colorado is pretty sweet. I know you will like that one!

  2. Attention advertisers! See. You don’t need to dumb down to get noticed and appreciated.

    I have UHaul stamped on my memory now. Shame I don’t need to shift anything soon.

  3. Ryan
  4. drow

    oh, gods. i recognized the equation immediately. i need to get out.

  5. hawesome = hawkesome?

  6. Vernon Balbert

    I decided to see if I could find the crater using Google Earth considering how these things can pop out at you when you view them from space. I *THINK* I see it, but it’s not all that easy to make out and I’m not sure if I’m just seeing pareidolia or or if I’m actually seeing somthing. Anybody else want to take a look at this?

  7. BigBadSis

    Wow! You gotta love Maryland! UHaul has the Hubble on the side of their trucks! But take a look at New Mexico…

  8. Wow! You gotta love Maryland! UHaul has the Hubble on the side of their trucks! But take a look at New Mexico…

    Was it that or Nevada that had the aliens on it? I last saw one ages ago…

    Very cool thing on the Iowa one though.

  9. Duane

    “I decided to see if I could find the crater using Google Earth … ”

    The reason you can’t see it using Google Earth is explained in the ad: The entire crater is concealed beneath a mansion. The world’s largest, no doubt…. 😉

  10. Sweet! That is very cool indeed.

    The New Mexico one is very funny.

  11. Oh dear Fanged God…

    Alberta has /Habakkuk/ on it. The island-sized wood-pulp-icecrete aircraft carrier.

    Instant total win for Canada.

  12. Oh, and anyone space-minded will like California’s preferred image. 😀

  13. dre

    What? I was just in St. Augustine, FL, and they claimed to be the oldest city in the United States! If Manson, IA, is 70 million years old, I think they should be claiming that title, even if they were vaporized once or twice. They did a great job of rebuilding, if you ask me.

  14. ShavenYak

    Hmm, it looks like there are mismatched parentheses in the denominator of the big fraction.

  15. Andy Beaton

    If only someone had parked that trailer outside my planetary science exam…

  16. Proud to be American.

  17. Did that impact happen before or after The Flood ™?


  18. Moose

    Are they suggesting they hope Iowa gets taken out by an asteroid strike? Tsk.

  19. Helio George

    I could easily be wrong, but that equation doesn’t look right. There is a missing half of the parenthesis in the denominator, for one thing.

    I used an eject speed of 9 km/sec, phi = 30 deg, giving Rb = 19,400 km.

    Using a 10 km/sec eject speed, phi = 30 deg, yields Rb = -16,400 km. Note the negative, if nothing else!

    Will someone else plug and chug, as I haven’t any time.

  20. James

    Phil I saw one down the street that was parked at a gas station for several weeks, and it had the Drake equation on it. Too cool! I love UHaul for doing this stuff!

  21. I want to nit-pick here, since the v term is squared it doesn’t matter whether it’s velocity or speed, since they’d end up being the same (since speed = sqrt(|velocity|^2), square both sides and they’re equal).

    If it hadn’t been squared, then it would have mattered.

  22. Washington, California, Montana… no Oregon.

    We’re just not that interesting, I guess!

  23. Well I’ll be. There is a missing paren in the denominator. I didn’t see it at all. That’s pretty funny.

  24. Stuart, I was thinking that as well, but I sometimes overthink things, so I left it off. Looking up the definition of vector multiplication, it seems that you’re right. I’ll mention this to Dan when I see him.

  25. Helio George

    Givig a little time to it….The equation seems to fall apart once velocities > 7 km/sec are used, regardless of where the second parenthesis is placed in the denominator. So, either the equation is limited or erroneous.

    Regardless, U-Haul has done something very cool both in topic and art, even if proves to be “Bad Astronomy” at least it looks like good astronomy!

    Thanks Phil, it is enjoyable to see some large enterprise recognize something this interesting!

  26. Wait wait wait… “speed” and not “velocity”??? Don’t drop this bomb on us (ha!) without explaining! I want to know how they’re different!

  27. Patrick

    So how do we get the speed (V sub e)? Come on. The rest is staightforward.

  28. Hey Phil, good job!

    I’ve been looking for information, but I guess I am the “Lazy Astronomer” and needed you to bring this to my attention. I’ve been saying I’d get this to my summer students in my astronomy classes here in Iowa. Now I have the link and might even order a T-shirt! I gave you a Digg too. :-)

  29. themadlolscientist

    Volcanoes in Arkansas, space weather right in your neck of the woods in CO, dinosaurs in CT, Coal Age critters in Illinois…….. these illustrations are MADE of frakkin’ hawesome x eleventy hundred eleven!

    Just don’t tell PZ about the Newfoundland one, OK? :-)

    And yes, Habbakuk [sic] is bloody hawesome too. The History Channel’s Modern Marvels series did a show about it. Woooooooooaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh d00ds!

  30. IBY

    @ singe
    Velocity accounts for both how fast it goes and direction, in math terms, a vector, speed is is an absolute value of how fast something goes, there is no negative or positive, no arrows, no directions.

  31. IBY

    And as someone who loves math and physics, I think it is cool they put the equation :)

  32. MikeinJapan

    The reason you can’t see the crater is it’s buried under a hundred meters of glacial soil deposits. There is very little bedrock exposed in the state, but the topsoil geology is quite interesting. Terminal morraines, interconnected sand/gravel aquifers, etc… 😀

  33. Wouldn’t you know it – I rented a UHaul van for my move to Cincinnati last month, and out of all the vans I could get – I get the one with the giant picture of the Sun on it! They gave the astronomy educator and astrophysics student a giant sun to ride all around town with. It’s a sign, I tells ya!!!

    A sign that I should move more often! :)

  34. Singe: speed is just a rate, like km/sec. Velocity has a direction as well; it’s a vector. So 50 km/sec is a speed, but 50 km/sec north is a velocity.

  35. IBY

    Adding to what Phil said, -50 km/sec is a velocity too, which is like going backward, and it is a lower velocity than 50 km/sec even though speed is the same.

  36. themadlolscientist

    I don’t know about you all, but I’d much rather have an asteroid traveling at -50 km/sec with respect to me than +50 km/sec. :-)

  37. Funny how the U-Haul designs try to make flyover states seem much more exciting than they are, by taking one interesting detail out of context (exs.: the sea turtle in South Dakota, the zebra from Idaho, or the freaky Wrath-of-Khan creature from Illinois).

    But, maybe that’s the point. Every place does have some little interesting thing, if you look hard enough. U-Haul’s gone to a lot of trouble to make every state seem interesting, and we can learn a lot from what they’ve done.

  38. Coriolis

    Browsing through the whole set of graphics I noticed there’s a surprisingly strong presence of science (ignoring the Roswell one, that is) in many of these designs! Local wildlife, rare plants and animals, geology, physics, astronomy… while I certainly think it’s fabulous, I admit I’m a little shocked by it. This is U-Haul– tourist attractions and monuments I can see, but the science is an odd (if welcome) marketing decision. Well, whoever it was in their company who set this up, my hat’s off to you, sir or madame. Some wonderful designs out there on America’s roads, maybe inspiring a few students along the way.

  39. IBY

    Me too :)

  40. madge

    I love it when ads make you think, or teach you stuff! It happens so rarely. This is very cool

  41. Ken of PA

    Here is the U-Haul site about their “SuperGraphics”:


    And they will accept your suggestions for future “SuperGraphics”:


  42. Ted H.

    I guess a little woo is inescapable. Roswell, Champ, and an odd take on Area 51, to name 3 I saw. It is a very nice set of graphics. The ‘about’ section: http://www.uhaul.com/supergraphics/about.aspx talks about the educational element.

    GreyDuck: Nope, Oregon is not that interesting, sorry.
    (That’s a joke, I really like Oregon. Except Portland is a pit) Anyway, take heart, it also says there are a few more to go, so they still might come up with something!

  43. Peter B

    Maybe a few of you should write to UHaul to say how much you enjoy this sort of advertising, and where you found out about it. Remember that they’ll realise that those who write in will represent only a portion of those who’ve noticed (about 5-10% if I remember the stats correctly).

    With luck it’ll encourage them to do more.

  44. I would suspect the equation fails for velocities above about 7 or 8 km/s because anything ejected above that speed is probably going to orbit a while, and above 11 km/s will simply leave the Earth forever.

    That would be my guess, without doing a detailed analysis on the formula.

  45. Hi, I’m Spanish and I read about Manson, Iowa some years ago in a great book called A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Somehow I thought that place was way more famous anyway…

  46. ioresult

    Evolving Squid: I’ve had some fun with the equation and at the exact escape velocity (11.18km/s for Earth) and angle of 45 degrees, the distance is exactly halfway around the planet! I’m also not sure how accurate that is.

    Also: I’m insulted! They don’t have Québec on the uhaul site! Even though we see plenty of uhaul trucks around here. Even the other provinces have the text in French!

  47. Stuart

    Here are all the U-Haul “SuperGraphics”: http://www.uhaul.com/supergraphics/

    A lot of them are very nice (and sciencey), but not all available on T-shirts, unfortunately. But, you can download them as wallpaper or whatever. Check out the volcano on Arkansas.

  48. George N

    “Wouldn’t you know it – I rented a UHaul van for my move to Cincinnati last month, and out of all the vans I could get – I get the one with the giant picture of the Sun on it! They gave the astronomy educator and astrophysics student a giant sun to ride all around town with. It’s a sign, I tells ya!!!”

    You know if some creationist were to drive the UHaul with the Sun on it around the Earth the dream would come true and Galileo would be put in his place at last.

  49. Helio George

    George, what color was their Sun? Let me guess, yellow? U-haul isn’t there yet, but they are moving in the right direction.

  50. Autumn

    I notice that the WV graphic depicts Green Bank.
    Ten years ago a couple of friends and I were drivin’ around the country, and in WV (in our VW), we come around a curve in the mountains to the sight of a big radio telescope on a neighboring mountainside. We were totally geeked, being geeks, and visited the complex.
    I don’t know if they still do, but back then there was a little kiosk with a pamphlet to guide us on a little walking-tour, explaining the telescopes we saw, and also pointing out the giant (depicted in the U-Haul graphic) telescope under construction. We only saw the skeleton of the dish sitting on the ground, but it was still huge. I’ve since wanted to return to see it standing.
    America is full of off-the-beaten-path awesomeness.

  51. very rarely, if ever, does a piece of advertising make me say “that-a-boy!” thats really amazing!

  52. AJWM

    U-Haul does seem to have something of a spacey bent. There’s a U-Haul storage facility not far from me, adjacent to a highway. The upper floors have life-size cardboard cutouts of Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock looking out the windows. No idea what that has to do with storage, but hey.

    ioresult: PEI is also missing. Quebec shows up in the “Classic” picture series, and a few other provinces are missing from that.

  53. That is very cool. Why dont they teach us stuff like this in physics? It may not be core material, but its actually interesting…

  54. Did you mean to say the crater was 40 kilometers in diameter or the impact structure was? I don’t think those are the same thing, and a crater that size just seems too unlikely.

  55. drjm

    Too bad U-Haul is one of the worst companies in the world and they, literally, do not believe in customer service. When I called to complain once, I was told that they, “Did not need customers like me who didn’t appreciate the service U-Haul offers.” The call was in reference to me being broke down on the side of the road due to their mechanically unreliable truck.

    I had to rent another truck and reload all of my stuff from one truck to another on the side of the interstate at my expense, even though I had their most expensive insurance.

    In all, I went all the way up the company and talked to one of their executive managers whom assured me that they didn’t care and they didn’t need my business and they honestly could care less if I took my business to another company. I was then promptly hung-up on.

    Use U-Haul at your own risk, if you need help, regardless if it is their fault, you will not get it.

  56. Dan

    U-Haul explains the equation here:
    When studying craters and crater formation, scientists and geologists not only study the structure and geologic makeup of these impact sites, they also try to understand everything that took place as the crater developed. One common calculation used by scientists and geoogists involves the analysis of the distance that debris was thrown from the crater. A small fraction of the materials actually escape the Earth’s gravitational field. To calculate the distance material is ejected from the crater, with relation to the angle it is being ejected and the velocity at which it is being ejected, scientists use the Ballistic Range-Velocity Formula.

    The Ballistic Range-Velocity Formula is shown at right.

    Rb – Ballistic range
    Rp – Radius of the Earth
    g – Acceleration due to the Earth’s gravity
    Ø – Ejection angle
    Ve – Ejection velocity

    More about this equation can be found in Impact Cratering: A Geologic Process by H. J. Melosh.

  57. Scott

    I will still never forgive them for nearly giving me an aneurysm with the truck with the giant spider on the side. 😉

  58. Davido

    Hey U-Haul! Here’s an equation for ya:

    V (sub a) = V(sub t) – (V (sub r) + V (sub b)).

    That’s, vans available = total vans, minus (vans already reserved + broken vans).

    LEARN IT, and we might do business again.

  59. seo

    The equasion is all wrong! I can prove it but can’t be bothered. :)

  60. gmon

    I wonder about their accounting department. Especially when they can’t even match parenthesis.

    Didn’t someone check the equation before printing it on their vans. How stupid is that?

    Look how smart Uhaul is. They can’t even copy an equation right. Don’t expect your Uhaul bill to add up either.

  61. Hello and thanks to everyone for pointing out the error in our Iowa SuperGraphic. Who would’ve thought a stray parenthesis could cause such an uproar!

    Anyway, as of today, we’ve fixed all the references to the erroneous equation on the web site. Feel free to check it out (again).

    We are glad to see such enthusiasm for the U-Haul SuperGraphics program!

  62. Man Uhaul really is an awesome company, they don’t really have any real competitors that have the variety of hauling supplies and moving equipment they have, but they still try to have very reasonable prices. Also cool is how they encourage people to recycle the boxes you buy from them.

  63. Procyon

    That is awesome… but with all your getting tangled up in mathematical equations and parentheses and whatnot you all missed a glaring error…
    …”Meteor evidence?”
    …Great, Iowa has evidence of shooting stars! Shame nobody’s noticed the big METEORITE crater beneath Manson. 😛


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