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Giant Killer Asteroids -- Coming Soon

Today, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Naked Science, and learned all about killer asteroids. I took from this episode that we will find ourselves in the path of a deadly asteroid at some point, and that our scientists really don't know what to do about it.

One scientist showed us how we could put a giant magnifying glass in space, and harness the sun's power to incinerate and deflect the asteroid. To illustrate his idea, he used a magnifying glass to play the part of the giant magnifying glass, and a grapefruit to represent an asteroid. Ah, delicious grapefruits! Another scientist told us that we could send a spaceship equipped with a special claw which would grab the asteroid, and shift its course. That scientist made an important point about his idea -- it would take ten to fifteen years to develop, which means we're in trouble if an asteroid comes our way in the next few years. You can also forget about the Hollywood-inspired idea of using nuclear bombs to destroy an approaching asteroid. The nuclear power requirement to destroy an asteroid is too great, and even if we were able to shatter the asteroid, it would likely cause thousands of radioactive "asteroidlets" to shower us.

Another problem with the ideas presented by our scientist friends is that we will only know if their ideas are effective if they work as hoped when the time arrives. According to information presented in this episode, the government budgets four million dollars annually for research into these asteroids. That's not much money, so it doesn't seem we'll make any rapid progress in developing preventive technology.

I do appreciate the work that some of these scientists are doing to try to help. Their efforts are heroic, though underappreciated by the majority of the human race. Most of us would rather remain ignorant so as not to worry, but there are scientists who are facing this potential catastrophe daily in order to protect us.

It's not clear when an asteroid will hit us, but it's clear that it has occurred in the past, and that our orbit does put us in danger. One scientist put it in perspective by describing our orbit as a highway, and the paths of asteroids as small side streets that intersect with that highway. The intersections don't have traffic lights, and the asteroids don't look both ways before crossing the highway. We've been lucky in our lifetimes that we haven't been at one of those intersections at the same time as an asteroid. How much longer will luck be on our side?

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