Averting asteroid Armageddon

Out There

April 07, 2009|By Douglas MacKinnon

In the 1998 movie Armageddon, audiences thrilled as Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi and Ben Affleck scrambled to save life on Earth from destruction by an asteroid - and the vast majority left the theater safely confident that such a far-fetched threat could not possibly reflect reality. They should not have been so sure.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported that on March 2, asteroid 2009 DD45 came within about 48,000 miles of Earth. In astronomical terms, that's way too close for comfort. Yet the world hardly noticed.

An asteroid the size of 2009 DD45 exploded over Siberia in 1908 and flattened more than 800 square miles of forest, killing everything in its path. Moreover, 2009 DD45 is considered to be the runt of the asteroid litter, quite small in relation to the planet killers screaming through our solar system undetected.

Our close encounter raises two substantial questions. First, should the nation invest more money into NASA's Near Earth Object Program to detect these potential planet-killers and implement a plan to nudge them off their destructive course?

Second, does this latest cosmic scare dictate the need to formulate a plan to permanently get a representation of humankind off the planet as a way of preserving the species? Isn't it time we covered our bets?

It may be time for our young president to expand upon the words of John F. Kennedy, another young and visionary leader who saw the promise and challenge of space. He could include the survival of the species as an additional reason to be in space. Some astronomers think we are long overdue for an asteroid strike. That proof just missed us - this time.

Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official.

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