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The sky is falling?

28 August 2018

An interesting story appeared in NZ's mainstream media today.

Apparently, a meteor streaked across the skies of North Canterbury yesterday evening, creating a sonic boom and some consternation.

Meteors (especially micrometeors) are not uncommon. In fact I would recommend to those who haven't already done it, that they stand outside an hour or two after sunset on a cloudless evening and just gaze skywards for 20 minutes or so.

The odds are *very* high that you'll spot at least one or two brief sparkely trails which show a meteor, probably no bigger than a grain of sand, losing the fight with earth's atmosphere and being vaporised into an incandescent trail of hot gas.

However, I also wonder why we're so complacent about all this.

It wasn't long ago that a somewhat larger meteor (which ultimately became a meteorite) swept across the skies of Russia before exploding over Chelyabinsk.

In that incident, as many as a thousand people required medical treatment for injuries and a number were so badly hurt as to require hospitalisation.

If we go back a bit further there's the Tunguska event which, if it had occurred over a more populous area rather than the back-woods of Russia, would certainly have created a significant death toll.

Things become even more frightening if we wind the clock back to the age of the dinosaurs, for it is almost certain that it was an even larger meteorite that played a huge part in their extinction. The impact of this space-rock threw so much crap into the atmosphere that it caused a level of global cooling that effectively resulted in the deaths of many non warm-blooded animal species and saw the rise of the mammals.

Now I'm sure we've all seen the excellent movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis and crew fly a couple of space shuttles to an approaching "planet-killer" asteroid and blow it up with nukes before it destroys the earth. Science fiction at its best.

But... what happens when we really have to face such a threat to our existence?

We really don't have a plan or any options.

Right now we're a target on a galactic shooting range and we've taken a few good hits already. Nobody is prepared (or preparing) for the bullseye that, it must be acknowledged, is more about "when" than "if".

Plenty of pie in the sky defense strategies have been suggested but none have been practical enough to implement.

A huge laser-beam could possibly be constructed to try and vaporise or at least fragment any large rock on a collision course with earth. Indeed, such a huge laser could serve a double role, as one of Aardvark's regular readers pointed out when they sent me this link.

Of course the big question would be "can we afford it?".

The answer would have to be, can we afford to do nothing?

Sadly, I don't think that a laser beam, even one as big as the 100GW unit suggested in that article, will be enough to stop a decent-sized planet-killer asteroid. The best we could hope is that a sustained direct hit might split the one huge asteroid into a number of smaller ones -- each of which could take out the planet anyway.

I can't help but think of the saying "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" and reflect on how this is exactly the attitude we're taking with our future.

How many billions of dollars are poured into video games, luxury cars, fine mansions, jewelery and the other "luxuries" that we enjoy? What good will all that fine stuff be when Asteroid 73954GA36P appears on our radars and there's not a God-damned thing we can do about it?

But then again, what's to worry about? The odds of anyone reading this column dying in such an event are so small as to be unimportant. You are far, far more likely to be killed in a car crash, trip and tumble down the stairs or simply have a heart attack.

Phew... now I can go back to playing Fortnite while my chauffeur drives me back to the summer-home in my Bentley. OMG, my Rolex says we're running late! Hmmm... what's that bright object in the sky?

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