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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Do you smell that? It's called "disdain."

A few of you have probably heard about* the recent near miss of asteroid 2009 DD45, a 200 foot wide piece of debris that passed within 40,000 miles of the Earth this past Monday (March 2nd). Had this rock struck us, it would have liberated an amount of energy equivalent to a thermonuclear weapon either at the surface of the Earth or somewhere in the atmosphere. The damage would have ranged anywhere from essentially unnoticeable** to potentially catastrophic. And if 40,000 miles sounds like a long way, consider that it's less than twice the altitude that many communications satellites use, and within the orbit of the moon. So, yes, in astronomy terms, this was a close thing. If you're wondering why you haven't heard of this already, it's probably because almost as soon as we spotted it, we determined it wasn't going to hit us anyway.

I am not interested in talking about planetary defense, however. Instead, I'd like to simply make an observation about the news media. Consider, first, this excerpt from an article on 2009 DD45 from Sky and Telescope:

Late word out of the IAU's Minor Planet Center: a small asteroid will pass close to Earth tomorrow (March 2nd) at 13:44 Universal Time. How close? The MPC's Timothy Spahr calculates that it'll be 0.00047 astronomical unit from Earth's center. That's only about 40,000 miles (63,500 km) up — well inside the Moon's orbit and roughly twice the altitude of most communications satellites!

This little cosmic surprise, designated 2009 DD45, turned up two days ago as a 19th-magnitude blip in images taken by Rob McNaught at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. It was already within 1½ million miles of Earth and closing fast.

Thankfully, the news media have become less sensationalistic when it comes to these asteroidal close calls — especially since one actually struck our planet last October 7th, at night, and the impact went virtually unnoticed.


Pretty reasonable, right? Okay, now consider this article from your friends and mine at Fox News:

A small asteroid buzzed by Earth Monday, though only real astronomy geeks in the Pacific would have noticed.

The rock, estimated to be no more than 200 feet wide, zoomed past our planet at an altitude of 40,000 miles at 1:44 p.m. universal time — or 8:44 EST.

Dubbed 2009 DD45, it was discovered only on Friday by Australian astronomers.

Forty thousand miles may sound like a lot, but it's only about one-seventh of the way to the moon, and less than twice as far out as many telecommunications satellites.

Had 2009 DD45 hit the Earth, it would have exploded on or near the surface with the force of a large nuclear blast — not very reassuring when you consider humanity had only about three days' notice.

According to the Australian news Web site Crikey, the asteroid is likely to be drawn in by Earth's gravity, meaning it may return for many more near misses in the future. [emphasis added]


Look, I get it Fox News, okay? I understand that you hate science. I get it that your political masters consider attempts to actually understand the world to be the work of the devil. But, really and truly, those "geeks" are the same people who are trying to keep an eye out for giant pieces of rock that, upon smashing into the Earth, could kill the entire human race. And if that happened we all know you'd be wondering why nobody was looking for those giant pieces of rock. Those "geeks" are trying to save your ass.

Show some respect, aiight?


* True story: I heard about 2009 DD45 from my barber who described it as considerably larger than it was, and then made a reference to "The planets going around the Earth." After a moment she then asked, "Is that right?" At which point I gently corrected her that, no, the ptolemaic model has been out of favor for some time.

** Like a recent impact that liberated the equivalent of 1 to 2 kilotons.

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