Close encounters


HAMILTON (CUP) – Did you feel it? On Nov. 8, an asteroid brushed right by our little blue sphere in space, giving some of us a genuine scare. I’m not talking some dinky, burns-up-in-our-atmosphere asteroid we scoff at several times a day. We almost got hit by a 400-metre-wide clump of coal and space evil.

To put this into perspective, the asteroid, named 2005 YU55 (rolls right off the tongue), came closer to us than the moon does at any given time of the year. That’s a frightening thought.

There was never any actual threat from the astral rock, as observatories around the world have long predicted its arrival and trajectory, and were given enough data to back up the claim that it would not directly impact us. What the asteroid did do, though, is remind us just how fragile our planet is, and how Earth has little to no defence plans in the event that an asteroid decides not to take the scenic route.

Prompted by the event, groups like the Secure World Foundation (SWF) have banded together to plan an international strategy that would deal with these space invaders made of stone. The SWF has approached the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, which is a completely legitimate organization, apparently, to inquire into their contingency plan for the unthinkable catastrophe. The verdict? If a foreign space object comes at us with no warning – for instance, from behind the sun, which would give us less time to predict its movement – we are helpless. There would not be nearly enough time to deal with it adequately.

Awesome. Not that it is super urgent, as the chances of it happening are slim, but slimmer odds have prevailed – and all it takes is one to really ruin our day.

Our planet is, as SWF executive director Ray Williamson told the CBC, a “sitting duck in a cosmic shooting gallery,” and the sooner we take steps to protect it, the sooner we can get back to poking each other with nuclear sticks and comparing the size of our GDPs in the bathroom.
The next time we expect to have such a frightening fly-by is in the far-flung year of 2028, when we are finally going to have those flying cars that we were supposed to get back in 1995. Then we can just fly above the ruins of a charred, broken planet, kind of like the Jetsons.

Or, we’ll repeat the mistakes of small-brained, gigantic lizards that lived 65 million years ago. They lived their lives in squalor and ecstasy and paid the price when they failed to respond to the asteroid threat. Do we want to be mocked by alien civilizations when they learn we met the same fate as the dinosaurs – creatures that we dig up, display, and make cult-classic films about?

So before those Hanna-Barbera prophecies come to fruition, let’s pour some of that money we don’t have back into the space programs we have forgotten about. Let’s do it before they get to have the ultimate “I told you so” moment. Don’t forget: there is an entire belt of roughly 1.7 million asteroids just waiting between Mars and Jupiter, and all it takes is a slight gravitational disturbance to get them to look in our direction.

Andrew Terefenko
The Silhouette (McMaster University)

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