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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Science fiction has taken turn to reality

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

To read the details, it seemed like a story straight out of Hollywood. In January - completely unknown to virtually everyone - an asteroid was headed toward earth with as much as a 40 percent chance of striking somewhere. The 100-foot wide hunk of rock was zooming to the Earth with amazing speed. Had it been a bit smaller, it would have exploded harmlessly far above the earth. But at that size, it would have impacted. Depending on where it struck, the results would have been devastating.

But the real interesting aspect of this story is that scientists who were tracking the asteroid minute-by-minute, had no idea who to contact and alert of the possible impending impact. They were warned against contacting the White House for fear it could be a false alarm. The military was not an option either since they would have been unable to do anything.

So in an isolated observatory here and another abroad, astronomers kept track of the approaching asteroid and wondered what would happen next. As it turns out, the asteroid skipped by Earth and remains somewhere out in the great beyond. And by the way, it was much, much larger than they had first predicted. But what happens next time? That question is now the subject of some great debate among the culture that monitors such activities.

Hollywood would have a squadron of military jets with missiles launched to neutralize the approaching rock. But Hollywood and reality are far different creatures. In this case, humanity stood helpless and without any plan. And it appears that will change little in the future.

I found another part of this story somewhat disturbing. It seems that despite the impression left by Hollywood, our scientists sometimes have just hours of notification before a potential asteroid is approaching. Hollywood would have us believe we have weeks' notice and can put some yet unexplained plan into place. But lo and behold, the experts say that a day or two notice is about the maximum we can expect.

Keep this in mind. Scientists tell us there are an estimated 1,100 asteroids larger than a half-mile wide that currently have the potential to head in our direction. These are the "potential civilization destroyers." But to understand these issues will take money. And the public - including myself - is not prone to providing billions for asteroid research. That is until you read about the near miss that occurred just two months ago.

If you consider the potential for disaster on this issue, it makes the events in Iraq and Israel and elsewhere look small by comparison. But we tend to dismiss issues that are beyond our imagination. And a mile-wide hunk of rock heading toward us at 100,000 miles per hour is simply beyond our imaginations.



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