So now the experts say the asteroid headed our way won't end the world, but will pass us by in 2028. Why waste perfectly good jokes?


March 14, 1998|By ROB HIAASEN : SUN STAFF


Nothing really dramatic ever happens anymore. The universe is getting so boring. One day, an asteroid the size of a Rocky mountain is aiming for us in 2028. The next day, that prediction is retracted, and the astronomers who made it "could not be reached for comment."

Another party ruined. But for a brief moment in time, chances were microscopic, infinitesimal, molecular and even small that Asteroid 1997 XF11 ("Biff," for short) would thump us to extinction. Despite the odds, Wednesday's thrilling astronomical bulletin rocked our puny imaginations.

Could this be the end of the world? Will we all be swimming with the dinosaurs? Will this mean, without doubt, the end of Cal's streak?

Well, we are on limited time here.

I hope it don't hit us.

The Heaven's Gate people are coming back!

Life was fun while it lasted came the voices from cyberspace, as our minds attempted to digest one truly big news story. So big it still can't be measured or proved -- corrected, yes -- but not ignored: An asteroid with a mile-wide waistline was likely to pass within 30,000 miles of Earth, possibly hitting it Oct. 26, 2028 -- "a Thursday," as the New York Times added in its front-page story.

The image of a minor planet ramming our little, insignificant Earth in 30 years (on a Thursday) -- well, it was enough to activate everyone's X-Files. It was just too mouth-wateringly iffy and cosmic to laugh off.

"Like many Americans, I learned of a large asteroid that will pass close to Earth in just thirty years," said a fax from U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher to the media. The California Republican urged President Clinton to reverse his 1997 line-item veto and now support an "asteroid interceptor" project.

Others in Congress this week advocated spending $25 million on some kind of Star Wars technology to combat falling asteroids. Nuke 'em! It all sounded a bit like Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" phony broadcast in the 1950s.

Washington isn't the only place with asteroid fever. A businessman in Florida (surprise!) sold about 100 policies for "pancake" asteroid insurance. Ridiculous, sure. But here's what was more interesting: His asteroid insurance gig actually prompted serious insurers to reassure policyholders that their homeowner's policy probably covers falling stellar objects. Whew -- that was a close one.

An asteroid entering Earth's orbit isn't science fiction, after all. Several much, much smaller asteroids harmlessly and routinely nail the Earth without fanfare. Larger "flyby" asteroids have come relatively close before. The closest approach to Earth ever observed was in 1994, when a house-sized asteroid came within 70,000 miles. "Massive" asteroids, however, strike Earth only once every 50 million years or so, scientists say.

"On the scale of a human lifetime, global catastrophes are improbable," John S. Lewis wrote in his 1996 book, "Rain of Iron and Ice: The Very Real Threat of Comet and Asteroid Bombardment." "But locally devasting impacts are vastly more common."

Then came Biff. Quickly dusted off were cool computer-generated graphics, Carl Sagan quotes and astro-jargon: EGAs (Earth-grazing asteroids), PHOs (potentially hazardous objects) and the "fudge factor." For the benefit of non-scientists, the so-called fudge factor in calculations allows astronomers to theorize that a planet-breaking asteroid could land at 1: 30 p.m., Oct. 26, 2028 -- or miss us completely.

And in the serious face of science this week, we all did a mathematical double-take. How old will we be in 2028 and will a Death Asteroid be the least of our worries? Won't finding our slippers seem more important in the grand scheme of the universe?

"How old are you? I'll be 59 this year, so you have a lot more to lose than I do," said Professor David Book at the University of Maryland, which has a dandy observatory in College Park.

Book was joking -- extinction is not intrinsically funny, but the man also knows folks can't comprehend really big numbers in astronomical risks. Imagining a mile-wide asteroid is very hard. So, when scientists speak of spatial relationships and statistical risks, the public doesn't always grasp the concepts.

"Have you ever counted to a million?" Book asked. Since we didn't completely understand his question, he tried to make another point. "People get an idea in their head, never mind what the facts are, and once they perceive a 'threat,' it's pretty hard to change their minds," he said.

So, is Book worried about an asteroid ever cratering Earth?

"Well, there is a chance in hell," he said, "but that's an awfully small chance."

In Laurel, astronomer Phil Plait has been in heaven. Whether the asteroid misses Earth by 600,000 miles or by six feet, the subject is more bytes for Plait's ever-expanding "Bad Astronomy" Web site.

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