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134 APRIL 2010
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TRUTHS AND HALF TRUTHS

Time to reach for the stars

Nils Ling

Recently, the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Centre (or NAMBLA, for short), announced that an asteroid packing a lethal punch had zinged past the Earth within what one scientist described as “... a hare's breath!”.

(Okay, that last part is not completely true. But one time I was chatting with someone on the Internets and they used that very term to describe a close call. It’s one of those turns of phrase that, when you see it, you instantly know is laughably wrong. On the other hand, you can understand how the person could have misheard “hair’s breadth”, and in fact, I guess if you’re close enough to smell or feel a hare’s breath, that’s pretty darn close – so there’s a sort of odd logic to it, and really, either way, you get the idea: “Close”. But I digress.)

The International Astronomical Union named this asteroid DD 45, because they are all, at heart, 13-year-old boys. We should just count ourselves lucky that “Booger” was taken.

DD 45 doesn’t sound like much of an asteroid: they calculated that it was approximately 47 metres across. You’d think the Earth would brush that away like a mosquito. But that’s the size of a ten storey building, and when a similar-sized asteroid hit the Earth in 1908, it exploded with the force of 1000 atomic bombs, flattening 80 million trees, cutting a swath 2000 km long, and putting a serious dent in that year’s Siberian tourist season.

So, this could have been a big deal.

It wasn’t.

But not by much.

DD 45 was first noticed on a Saturday. It zipped past the Earth on the following Monday afternoon, missing us by a mere 72,000 Km. In space terms, that’s like when someone swings a baseball bat at your head and you feel your hair flutter as it whizzes past.

Now, this is what we in the media call a “non-story”. It rated, at best, a paragraph or two in the back pages of some of the larger papers. Something bad could have happened; it didn't; The End. Back to our coverage of the “Octo-mom”.

But wait just a minute: they noticed this on a Saturday. Some astronomer out in the wilds of Australia was peering through a telescope and went, “Hang on, mate. What’s this, then? Why, it’s an asteroid packing the wallop of 1000 nuclear bombs, heading right for – oh, wait, no worries, it’s going to miss us. Throw us a Foster’s, would you?”

My humble question is this: what if itwasn'tgoing to miss us? This guy saw it on a Saturday, it went byon the following Monday. What if that astronomer had looked up into the skies and said, “Whoa. Monday is going to be a really bad day. Throw us a Foster’s. And let’s just leave the case open.”

Now, we all know that the only way to protect ourselves from rogue asteroids on a collision course with the Earth is to load up a space shuttle with Hollywood stars and send them off to blow it up. But that presupposes a little bit of advance warning. If you discover an impending asteroid-related disaster on Saturday, and it’s going to hit on Monday, what kind of crew can you pull together?

Oh, sure, you can probably gather some D-list stars, maybe some reality show contestants, but you’re never going to be able to reach Tom Cruise’s agent on a Sunday. And really, is there anyone we’d all rather see shot into space? Okay, Paris Hilton, but after that?

Apparently, this kind of near miss is not all that uncommon. So it could happen again. I’m not too happy that this astronomer got to decide whether or not to tell us, and when the news should be released. Again, suppose it’s Saturday and this thing is going to hit us on a Monday. At least give us time to max out our credit cards and tell the boss what we really think of him.

We give these astronomers all these expensive toys to play with. NASA keeps showing us pictures of galaxies billions of light years away, taken with a new space telescope that probably cost thousands of dollars, and I can’t help but point out that not one of those galaxies is currently hurtling toward Earth and expected to arrive before the weekend. Somebody at NASA needs to look at their list of priorities.

I say it’s time for decisive action. If they’re only going to give us a couple of days' notice, we need to immediately launch some Hollywood stars into orbit. They can stand by, way out there, in case we need them.

The floor is open for nominations. Come on, people. Paris and Tom can’t do this alone.

This feature: From Nils Ling’s book Truths and Half Truths. A collection of some of his most memorable and hilarious columns.

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