Thursday, February 07, 2013

Watch out, there's an asteroid coming

Unnerving news reaches us from astronomers at the La Sagra Observatory in the mountains of Andalusia: on Friday February 15 a 130,000-tonne 45-metre asteroid will pass within a whisker of the Earth.

An asteroid, yesterday. Not 2012 DA14 but you get the general idea.
Closer than some man-made satellites, almost close enough to reach out and touch, 2012 DA14 (for that is its name, rather than the much more Spanish and romantic Asteroide Gordo) will scoot just 17,200 miles from the surface of our planet before whisking off again on its odd-shaped near-Earth orbit.

All of which poses a very pertinent question. (And no, it doesn’t beg the question. That means something rather different, as will be illustrated later.)

It’s only a week until our close encounter, and the Corporal Joneses are conspicuous by their silence. So why exactly is no one panicking?

Well, to start with, the astronomers are pretty confident that it’ll be a near miss.

They don't like it up 'em!
Second, after all that nonsense about the Mayans a month or so back, the world has entered a state of apocalypse fatigue: in the last couple of years, we’ve heard so many predictions of the end of the world  that a 45-metre asteroid heading in our general direction isn’t worth getting worked up about.

Watch out if you’re still around in 2110, though, because on that return visit there is just a chance that 2012 DA14 will collide with the Earth. A chance of one in 7,692,308,000. Which is the same as winning the lottery three times in a row (this sounds about right, but please could some kindly mathematician check the sums for us?)

So don’t panic, carry on as normal, keep on taking the tablets. You won’t even be able to see asteroid 2012 DA14 pass by unless you happen to live in Eastern Europe and possess a very powerful telescope. It’s a tiny storm in a giant celestial teacup.

And if you do feel a thump on the back of your head on February 15, you can be sure it isn’t an asteroid fragment, much less Armageddon.

It’s your loved one, gently reminding you that you’re a day late with the flowers and chocolates.

So, to illustrate the correct use of the phrase “begging the question”: Why haven’t you done anything about Valentine’s Day yet? QED.

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