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Thursday, 25 March 2010

Rocket Man

Isn’t it fascinating how you wait ages for an interesting story to come along and then they arrive in a convoy.

There I was quietly enjoying reading a news item about the rise of the dinosaurs and massive volcanic activity that brought that about when blow me down up pops a story about budgetary cutbacks and how that will reduce our chances of surviving an in bound asteroid.

Serendipity or what?

As you all know, a group of experts have concluded that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a huge lump of space rock slamming into Earth at about where Mexico is now. Now a second group of experts reckon that about 200 odd million years ago a massive 100,000 year long outpouring of volcanic material changed the Earth’s climate to such an extent that it wiped out the prevailing top species – tetrapods (four-limbed animals). This gave the dinos the leg up they needed to become top dog.

The lesson is obvious. If you’re top dog – you’ll be zapped sooner or later. Which is why, as I explained in my earlier entry “It’s the final countdown” the Americans are keen to find ways of identifying rogue asteroids and blasting them to hell and back.

Now we learn that not only have the bankers ruined our chances of getting a half decent pension when we retire, they’ve increased the chances that none of us will have the opportunity to retire. How can this be? It’s all down to that chilling phrase – “Budget Cuts”. You know the thing that will not speak its name. Well America has spoken. To be honest it’s a very small bit of America that has whispered the phrase.

It couldn’t be clearer than this. “Plans to more precisely plot the orbit of an asteroid with a small chance of hitting Earth in 2036 may be badly hit by funding cuts to a US radar facility”.

I’ll pause to let the enormity of that statement sink in.

According to my trusted sources, radar measurements set to be made in January 2013 by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, US, could help rule out an impact by asteroid Apophis. But there’s a funding gap – that’s the same as cuts but fancier. Without the money we won’t be able to rule out an impact – so my sources confirm. This means that once the wayward asteroid Apophis, a 300 metre wide, 25 million tonnes of pure meanness, knows we’re not watching it’ll sneakily change its course and slam into mine or your back garden (it might be mean, but it ain’t that big).

Just to show how shifty this little blighter is, it travels round the sun once a year. That means it crosses our orbit twice a year – not necessarily when we’re there; but we have to watch out.

Apparently there's a “gravitational keyhole” – somewhere and if bad ol’ Apophis threads itself through that- well the game’s up. We might as well hand over the planet to Neisseria Gonorrhoeae and her family.

We have been warned! Last year to be exact. The Committee to Review Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies; National Research Council published their harmless sounding report “Defending Earth”. I highly recommend the section in the Summary “Mitigation” or how to reduce to a minimum the road kill from this interstellar pile up. Overall this is a fascinating, if slightly disturbing read. What did Donald Rumsfeld say? “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know”. That about sums up the findings of this report.

Now where’s that queue for Virgin Galactic? At $200,000 a throw it might be the bargain of a life time.

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