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Opening Arguments

We're all doomed!

Best stock up that basement just in case:

It's nowhere near as big as the dinosaur-killing rock that crashed into Earth 65 million years ago, but the 50-meter (164-foot) diameter asteroid known as 2012 DA14 is big enough to take out a good-size city. Fortunately, astronomers say, it harmlessly will fly by Earth when it draws near our planet next Friday.

"Something of this sort would fit pretty nicely, if you put one into Central Park," John Lewis, professor emeritus of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona, tells PM. But having it fall from space would be another story. "It would probably wipe out the width of Manhattan in the east–west direction, but residents of the extreme northern and southern tips of Manhattan might survive."

[. . .]

At its closest approach, the asteroid will come within 17,000 miles of Earth. That's close enough, in astronomical terms, Lewis says, "to give you a haircut without breaking your skin. This is really close." The asteroid will pass within the 22,000-mile orbit of geosynchronous communications satellites, but above the International Space Station, which orbits between 230 and 286 miles from Earth.

"If it did hit—which it's not going to, nor will it in the coming decades—it would be about equivalent to a 2- to 3-megaton nuclear weapon," Betts says. "So about 200 times the Hiroshima blast in terms of energy released."

Whew. Just like living in a disaster movie, huh? "Which it's not going to, nor will it in the coming decades." Riiiight. That's what they always say, while they prepare secret plans to save the selecte few. Until Bruce Willis or Sean Connery saves the day.

And don't forget the doomsday asteroid:

. . . it flies past Earth every seven years. This year, its 1,000-foot bulk approached to within 9 million miles. In 2029, it will swoop in close enough to put some of our orbiting satellites in peril -- 20,000 miles. In that year, no doubt Apophis will arouse even more attention, because it will be visible in the daytime sky. In 2036, it will probably pass by at a reassuring 14 million miles.

Yet there's always a possibility we don't have these measurements exactly right. Something could happen at any point in Apophis' orbit to modify its course, just a smidgen. A tiny collision with another object, way out beyond Mars? What could change between now and 2029, or during any orbit thereafter?

Apophis masses at more than 20 million tons. If it hit Earth, the impact would unleash a blast the equivalent of over a billion tons of TNT. That's not an extinction event, but it could easily cause billions of deaths and months, if not years, of climate disruption.

Death and climate destruction? I blame George Bush.