Asteroid Nearly Destroys Earth by Dave Berry

Syndicated columnist with the Miami Herald (from the February 10, 2002 edition)

You can skip this column. I'm sure you have more important things to do. You don't need to waste your valuable time reading about how MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, POSSIBLY INCLUDING YOU, RECENTLY WERE ALMOST KILLED BY A GIANT SPACE ROCK AND THERE ARE MORE COMING AND NOBODY IS DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT.

Excuse me for going into CAPS LOCK mode, but I am a little upset here. In case you didn't hear about it, which you probably didn't: On Jan. 7, an asteroid 1,000 feet across -- nearly three times the current diameter of Marlon Brando -- barely missed the Earth, which is most likely your planet of residence.

What do I mean by ''barely''? I mean that this asteroid, traveling at 68,000 miles per hour, came within 400,000 miles. In astronomical terms, that is nothing. To get an idea how close this thing came, imagine that your head is the Earth. Now hold your right hand, representing the sun, at arm's length. Now take your left forefinger, representing the asteroid, and move it toward the Earth at 68,000 miles per hour until your pinkie is up to the knuckle in your left nostril. Now try t

What if this asteroid had hit the Earth? According British asteroid expert Benny Peiser, as quoted in the National Post of Canada, ''Such an object could literally wipe out a medium-sized country.'' So if you live in a large country, you have nothing to worry about!

No, really, if this thing had hit anywhere on Earth, it would have been seriously tragic. And don't think you're safe just because this one missed. There are plenty more asteroids and asterettes (which are your female asteroids) whizzing through space, and eventually one will hit us. Some already have. Astronomers believe that 65 million years ago, a large asteroid struck Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs; in 1985, a smaller one obliterated the career of Henry ''The Fonz'' Winkler. It is only a matter of time before disaster strikes again.

I'm sure this information raises some troubling questions in your mind, the main one being: There's a British asteroid expert named ''Benny?'' But also you're wondering: What is the astronomy community doing about this?

Good question. As it happens, the American Astronomical Society was holding a conference in Washington AT THE VERY SAME TIME as the asteroid nearly hit the Earth. I know this because The New York Times covered the heck out of the conference. Here's the scary part: The Times did not print ONE WORD about the asteroid. Instead, as this thing whizzed past, The Times printed the following exciting astronomy news:

JAN. 8 -- Astronomers have discovered that certain gamma rays, which they USED to think came from billions of light-years away, in fact came from only a few hundred million light-years away!

JAN. 9 -- Having studied the far edges of the universe with the Hubble telescope, astronomers now believe that roughly 14 billion years ago, stars formed more quickly than was previously thought!

JAN. 10 -- Astronomers ''peering deep into the heart of the Milky Way'' have discovered more than 1,000 sources of ''powerful X-rays,'' far more than were previously known!

So there you have it: While the Giant Space Rock of Death was coming THIS CLOSE to turning our planet into a cosmic Whack-a-Mole game, the astronomy community was squinting at the far edges of the universe. This is like two police officers standing in the park, and a screaming woman runs past, chased by muggers, and one officer says to the other: ``Look over there! An albino squirrel!''

No, the astronomers aren't going to save us. Humanity must take matters into its own hands. Step One, of course, is for everybody to lay in at LEAST a two-week supply of margarita ingredients. Step Two is to mount a massive international project, based on the movie Armageddon, to watch for an incoming asteroid, and then send up a rocket, commanded by Bruce Willis, to blow it up with a hydrogen bomb. Except of course we can't really use Bruce, because he'd want $20 million, plus a percentage of the asteroid. So we need someone else -- someone with courage, skill and a proven ability to perform in the face of grave danger. One name comes immediately to my mind, as I'm sure it does to yours. Geraldo, your planet needs you.

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