NEAR-MISS ASTEROID GOES ON THE RECORD

ImageExcuse me, Mr. Space Rock, have you got a minute? I’m with the media and I have a few questions about last Friday.

2012 DA14: I’m in a bit of a rush actually. Can’t you wait for Asteroid Week on the Discovery Channel? Or trouble the Higgs Boson instead?

That particle is too had to detect; it’s much easier to bounce a signal off you, actually. According to scientists, you’re a near-Earth asteroid with an estimated diameter of 50 meters and a mass of 190,000 metric tonnes.

2012 DA14: Yep, I’m a big rock. Anything else?

You came within a hair’s breadth of missing Earth last Friday, in terms of astronomical distances.

2012 DA14: I wouldn’t worry too much about it. The odds of dying from an asteroid strike are about 1 in 75 million.

In other words, approximately the same odds as encountering Leonard Cohen at a Red Bull promotional event.

2012 DA14: Huh?

Never mind. What about the smaller object that struck Russia the same day as your flyby? What are the odds of an asteroid and a meteorite coming around at the same time?

2012 DA14: Slim. We weren’t travelling together I can tell you that. 99 percent of us space rocks originate in the asteroid belt between Earth and Mars, and occasionally gravitational forces skew our trajectories. The rest of us are wanderers from the outer fringes of the solar system.

I see. Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said fireballs happen approximately once a day, but we just don’t see them because many fall over the ocean or in remote areas. In the 1908 Tunguska event in Siberia, the airburst from an incoming asteroid flattened trees like matchsticks for 770 square miles. If that had happened anywhere in Europe it would have been a catastrophe for civilization.

2012 DA14: True that.

Back to that air show in the eastern hemisphere last week. What is about Russia and you guys? Is this about Pussy Riot?

2012 DA14: Say what?

Sorry, I’m just being an idiot. More than 1,000 Russians were reportedly injured by the blast wave from the meteorite. What if this event had involved you, and not the much smaller guy?

2012 DA14: Oh, you’d know it if I dropped in. It would be a multi-megaton calling card, on the scale of Tunguska. Last week, even junior managed to reduce people of the 21st century to a state of quivering awe. And we’re talking about folks who live in a time where planetary science is well understood. Imagine something my size coming out of nowhere 10,000 years ago, when no one had a clue. Can you imagine the loincloth-crapping mysterium tremendum of it? My friends say that’s where your ideas about Sky Gods originate — from us falling out of the sky. And the occasional comet and supernova flaring up. We asteroids don’t have much to do with comets, actually. Stuck-up iceballs.

I hear you. I once witnessed an eclipse in the South of England, and I saw how an astronomical event could strike educated, rational people to the core — myself included. A teenage girl standing near me burst into tears. There’s something existentially disturbing about the sky erupting into blinding light or descending into impenetrable darkness, whether you understand the reasons or not.

2012 DA14: Your primate brains don’t deal well with cosmic surprises. You have constructed religious beliefs partly as a bulwark against uncertainty. But now that you have some scientific understanding of the planetary risks, you civilized types should consider constructing a space-based defence shield for protection against the likes of me. I’m hardly the biggest out there.

I thought you said the odds of disaster were very long.

2012 DA14: For an individual person, yes. For a species hoping to evolve throughout the lifespan of its sun, no. Consider asteroids a natural selection mechanism for galactic intelligence. We’re like Darwin Awards for beings that turn their weapons inward rather than outward.

I appreciate you sharing time with us, 2012 DA14. What’s your next stop?

2012 DA14: Hopefully nowhere. I’ll just keep rolling around in space for billions of years. I’m not much for excitement and not interested in making a scene.

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 22

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