Yesterday the Guardian ran a piece on NASA's plans to take inspiration from midget hero Bruce Willis and "land an astronaut on an [Earth-bound] asteroid hurtling through space at more than 30,000 mph" in order to deflect it. The report identified "a smallish asteroid called Apophis ... as a possible threat to Earth in 2036."
This sort of threat always gets me excited. My mind basks in the futility of pension plans, of soap operatic "fresh starts", of Wars on Terror, of the Pope's Linguaphone courses, of ... well, just fill the gaps. The unity of a terminal big bang to tail our genesis ignition (or so we are led to believe by the couturiers of astro-physics) appeals to me for reasons I can't quite explain. But the prospect is a great leveller of human presumptions, a great reminder that we're just tenants, not freeholders, of the BBC's invented Planet Earth.
Alas! Even the Guardian misleads (a little). Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society, explains in a letter to members of his organisation:
"Last year, briefly, it looked as though the unthinkable was coming true.
"A newly discovered asteroid -- dubbed Apophis -- appeared to be on a collision course with Earth. Its impact could annihilate a city, or set off a gargantuan tsunami. For a few tense weeks, the world’s telescopes swiveled to watch the asteroid and pinpoint its trajectory.
"It is now clear that Apophis will miss Earth by a few thousand miles in 2029."
Damn! I'm just still young enough to benefit pensions-wise from a cataclysm given my misspent youth. How deliriously wonderful if a life of hedonistic excess should be rewarded with instant oblivion instead of the regretful, drawn-out longueurs of supplementary benefits. Still, there's a smidgen of hope yet for those who've not put in their 40 years of voluntary servitude. Mr Friedman dangles this exciting thought:
"When Apophis passes us [in 2029], its orbit will be dramatically altered. Right now, calculations suggest that all will be okay ... but if the improbable happens, and its new solar orbit is just a few seconds more than the most likely prediction, then it will collide with Earth in 2036."