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Vienna | 18.5.2007 | 17:41 
God, what's happening in the world! A reality check on the web.

Chris, DaddyD, Zita

 
 
Reality Check Special
  Its name is Apophis, a lump of rock about 250 metres in diameter, which is hurtling towards us (or rather heading in our direction).
 
 
 
1 in 45,000
  So far scientists have estimated that there is a 1 in 45,000 chance of Apophis striking Earth on April 13th 2036... and yes doom-mungers, that's a Friday! Wouldn't that be just typical... all those superstitious individuals walking around covered in white ash saying "I told you so?"
So are we all doomed?
Let me come back to that one.

 
 
Armageddon
  Ever seen the movie 'Armageddon' with Bruce Willis & co? Bruce and his unlikely team head-up on a couple of space shuttles and detonate something nuclear on an asteroid heading this way. Is that the answer? The Hollywood graphics team went into overdrive imagining what landing on an asteroid could be like and the subsequent drama around pressing the detonation button. Well that scenario is all kind of unlikely because a) landing a space shuttle is not such an easy thing to do cos with an asteroid being such a small object (and we're talking about a "tiny" rock less than 1 km in diameter) there's very little gravity to land anything on it. And b) nuclear blasting near earth-asteroids into a million pieces would cause ... yes ... a million now uranium-charged fragments to impact over a wider earth area (increasing the chances of hitting a city).

 
 
The Answer
  There is a much simpler answer (assuming you spot a killer asteroid in good time). And that is to send up a probe and fly it close to the dangerous rock. Over the course of say a couple of years, the gravitational pull of the craft on the rock could shift it by enough degrees to render it harmless to earth - and voilą - life goes on for another 65 million years.
 
 
 
So what happened to the dinosaurs?
  Talking of 65 million, wasn't it an asteroid that was supposed to have wiped out the dinosaurs?
I've lost count of the National Geographic programmes I've seen over the last 15 years that have pinpointed a crater around the Gulf of Mexico which is said to be the smoking gun that did-away with our Jurassic friends. Well, Professor Gerta Keller from Princeton University has some good news for us. Forget that old theory. There was an asteroid impact but, according to the rocks she and her team have analyzed, it had very little effect on T-Rex or any of his cousins? It produced maybe a couple of days of haze and then the dinosaurs probably went on munching trees (or each other) until massive undersea volcanoes went into overdrive a little while later; all that sulpher pouring into the clouds didn't do anything that was roaming Earth much good.

 
 
  Anyway going back to that earlier point are we nevertheless doomed by asteroid impacts? If we unfortunately happen to be standing under the path of one invasive object then yes, I'd take that as a given certainty. A couple of 100 kilometers away, I wouldn't worry so much. And if a future asteroid has its eyes on a major city well it's probably not going to be Apophis on a Friday 13th in 2036 but by something that we haven't discovered yet. And that's the main point of our astronaut Rusty Schweickart. We need a coordinated action plan between the scientists, NASA & the UN so we can not only make accurate observations but act on things in good time.

Reality Check on Killer Asteroids can be heard at 12 midday, Saturday 19th May.

And if you didn't catch it, click here for the podcast - after the programme.

 
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