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Asteroid of Doom

I've been at the White House -- traipsed around the South Lawn, looked through some telescopes in advance of this big "star party" hosted by the Obamas and some astronauts -- and what no one bothered to mention is the Asteroid of Doom heading our way and destined to scare the bejabbers out of us multiple times in this century.

Known as Apophis, it will pass by in 2029 but won't come very close at all [oops, I misread the news release -- it'll be about 18,000 miles away at its nearest approach, which is pretty close!]. It'll whoosh by (though in space no one can hear you scream) again in 2036 at a white-knuckle distance of just 18,000 miles [um, make that 20,000 -- see how hard it is to be precise with these orbital predictions??]. The big news is that it'll also revisit us in 2068. There's a 3-in-a-million chance of a collision at that time. Unless they've miscalculated. Forgot to carry the 2 or whatnot.

The point is, this thing is pesky!

The good news is that scientists are increasingly confident that it won't obliterate [typical panicky overstatement -- it's the size of two and a half football fields so it ain't going to wipe out the planet] us on April 13, 2036 (a Friday, wouldn't you know). There's only a 1-in-250,000 chance of a collision.

Here's the press release from JPL. Here's another from the University of Hawaii.

By Joel Achenbach  |  October 7, 2009; 6:26 PM ET
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Can't we be proactive about this? Surely between now and 2029, or at least 2036, we can neutralize this threat. Perhaps in the goal of global survival, this could herald a new era of international cooperation. Together, I'm sure we can invent, fund, build and arm something big enough to squash, pulverize or distract Apophis before it gets too close.

It would make a great movie, too. Mudge can write the screenplay, in which the screenplay writer will be played by Robert Redford. The Boodle can offer plenty of consultants (science and cultural), all of whom should also have prominent movie roles. I think this alone will lift our film out of the generic category of "save the Earth from giant asteroid" films. Assuming any have already been made.

Posted by: Ivansmom | October 7, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse

That's still better odds of dying by asteroid than of winning the lottery.

This is supposed to reassure me?

Back to Mister Teddy Bear and I knocking back tequilas under our security blanket.


Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | October 7, 2009 7:12 PM | Report abuse

I blame Obama.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | October 7, 2009 7:22 PM | Report abuse

You know, it's all in how you say it. There's "Asteroidofdoom" or "Asteroid.....of Doom." Preferably followed by a thunderclap.

I've heard two competing arguments about going after AODs. On the one hand, as Ivansmom points out, there is the argument that these pesky critters are one of the only civilization-ending phenomena that we have any realistic hope of doing anything about. (Except, of course, for that whole "Kate and Jon" business, but that's kinda different.)

On the other hand, I have heard the argument that since the odds of a collision are, as Wilbrod notes, lottery-like, there are probably much more likely dangers that we can address. Such as, you know, childhood infections diarrhea, which kills *millions* of kids each year worldwide. (Of course, that doesn't make a good movie.)

And this is a valid dilemma. Is it better to attack common problems that kill many, or rare problems that kill more? I guess it comes down to what philosophers call the "Dirty Harry" effect.

Do you feel lucky?

Posted by: RD_Padouk | October 7, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

RD, you're brilliant, as usual. Exactly like Kate & Jon! Let's just cancel the asteroid's contract. Sure, it'll mean lawyers, but we know from lawyers.

The more I think of it, the more attractive I find the "distraction" option. What would catch an asteroid's attention? Make it say, "Oh look! Shiny!" I'm confident that our own brains, finely tuned to distraction, should be able to discover and exploit this option.

Posted by: Ivansmom | October 7, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

I keep seeing the ads for 2012, and am reminded that that "day" is also my younger child's birthday, so perhaps before we hipe the craziness of the near astroid collision we should as address the possible insanity that the impending Dec. 21, 2012 will generate. Build your doomsday bunker now! :-)

Posted by: dmd3 | October 7, 2009 7:48 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: DNA_Girl | October 7, 2009 7:48 PM | Report abuse

If this were the 1950s, the government would be investing heavily in ways to ensure that the Asteroid of Doom obliterates Moscow.

In terms of doom, I'm impressed that New Zealand seems to have considered ways to insure itself against catastrophic volcanic eruptions. Nothing like Taupo, 1800 years ago, is likely anytime soon, but then again, the north island has volcanoes all over, even underneath Auckland.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | October 7, 2009 8:22 PM | Report abuse

The Miami Herald reports that Land Shark Stadium at the edge of Miami will be hosting its last Super Bowl unless major improvements are made. Like a roof.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | October 7, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

A roof to protect the field from the harsh Florida January weather Dotc?
The CFL plays football in November in Alberta you know...

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | October 7, 2009 8:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm watching Olbermann, and I'm a puddle. It's repeated at 10 pm.

Posted by: rickoshea1 | October 7, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

It's about his father and the health care debacle.

Posted by: rickoshea1 | October 7, 2009 8:43 PM | Report abuse

I watched Keith tonight too and thought he did very well, and I was misty-eyed at the end. I like the idea of the health clinics in certain Democratic senators' backyards.

How cool that Joel was at the White House. Wonder if he gets to be at the actual star party. I can't get too worked up about the asteroid threat - too many other things will likely get me first.

Posted by: seasea1 | October 7, 2009 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Well, while it's certainly a good idea to focus most of your available energy on dangers with more-than-lottery-like odds of occurring, it's probably not a good idea to completely ignore the rare dangers, particularly when they are known with (documented, in-your-face, no messing around, yes we actually have pictures and fragments) certainty to occur from time to time. Even if we can't cure it, might as well work on some palliative procedures while there's time.

Also, I'm wondering about this bit from the JPL/NASA article: "Additional observations of the asteroid ruled out any possibility of an impact in 2029. However, the asteroid is expected to make a record-setting -- but harmless -- close approach to Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029, when it comes no closer than 29,450 kilometers (18,300 miles) above Earth's surface."

Umm, what record does that break? There are a few video recordings of close calls that entered and then left the outer atmosphere. And that Tunguska thingie got a heck of a lot closer than 30,000 km from the surface.

Posted by: bobsewell | October 7, 2009 9:52 PM | Report abuse

I'm sitting here trying to decide I would consider worse - an Apophis Asteroid strike or a Palin Presidency.

Any coincidence that that last could happen as a result of an election in... 2012? Perhaps that's what those apocryphal ancients were warning about.

Wandering merrily off-Kit for a moment, I'll be out of town for a few days, visiting Joel's hometown of Gainesville, FL with some friends.

Hopefully there will be some tall tales to tell when we return.


Posted by: -bc- | October 7, 2009 9:54 PM | Report abuse

New Kit!

Astronomy in the Rose garden!

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | October 7, 2009 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and I'm not crazy about this passage from the same JPL/NASA article: "The science of predicting asteroid orbits is based on a physical model of the solar system which includes the gravitational influence of the sun, moon, other planets and the three largest asteroids."

Am I supposed to believe that the Near-Earth Object Observations Program is primarily dependent upon the use of a really well-crafted orrery? Were I a betting man, I'd bet that the science of predicting asteroid orbits is based on a computational model of the solar system which includes the gravitational influence of the sun, moon, other planets and the three largest asteroids, not on a physical model.

Posted by: bobsewell | October 7, 2009 10:05 PM | Report abuse

"The point is, this thing is pesky!"

Orbits are funny things. They keep repeating in predictable ways. At least a miss is as good as a mile, or 18,000 miles in this case.

Posted by: edbyronadams | October 8, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

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