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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Playing Asteroids for Real

Depending on who you believe, the earth faces one of the following two possibilities:

1. The earth is in for a near miss in 2036 from a 900-foot long asteroid named Apophis
2. We're doomed! DOOMED I tell you!!

The first viewpoint is held by NASA. A few years ago they declared that the Earth was in serious risk of colliding with the asteroid in 2029. (This experience was reportedly the basis for the famous Bud Light commercial - though in real life they downed a whole bunch of Stella Artois and brie cheese.) However, after recalculating, getting their metric and standard people on one measurement system, and double-checking their U.S. Government surplus tape measure for warping, they changed their minds and declared that everything's cool. As far as NASA is concerned, Apophis is like the average hitchhiker on an interstate exit ramp: grubby, frightening, but passing out of sight as quickly as it comes into view.

Meanwhile, the second, "doomed" viewpoint is held be Russian scientists, who think there is a very good chance Apophis will hit a "gravitational keyhole*" in 2029, which will put the asteroid on a collision course with the earth in 2036. When asked where the asteroid would hit the earth, Russian scientists replied that considering current global trends and the odds, the consensus was on Detroit, Michigan.

NASA replied that the Russian scientists were exaggerating the chances of a collision, most likely as a prank to convince President Putin to leave the planet. NASA claims there is only a 1 in 250,000 chance that the collision scenario will happen. When asked for a real world example of those kinds of odds, a NASA spokesperson replied, "Oh, you know, about the chance that New Orleans will win the Super Bowl, the Boston Red Sox will win the World Series twice, and that the U.S. would have an African-American President all in the same decade." After a highly professional spit-take, she admitted those calculations were based on a 2003 research paper, commissioned by then Senator Joe Biden.

Regardless of who's right**, what is clear is that the earth needs a plan for defense. We can't just sit back and let any little punk asteroid who gets his hands on a gravitational keyhole crash his way into the Motor City, regardless of whether or not people would classify the results as "urban inprovement."

NASA and others are considering this very matter and devising what they call "earth protection strategies." Now, I know this sounds like a new kind of Geico policy, or a service your local mobsters offer ("Awfully nice planet you got there. It'd be a shame if anything happened to it.") In reality, it is actually a selection of tactics designed to redirect asteroids and other heavenly bodies to the shabbier, unpopulated parts of the solar system.

Most of these strategies are all very complex and subtle efforts to make minute but meaningful changes in the asteroid's trajectory. Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that instead of subtle, "reasonable" approaches, we need a real world version of the game Asteroids. You're thinking NASA needs to build a giant rotating spaceship with a massive cannon that can blast asteroids into a thousand pieces. You're even thinking that the cannon should make that "PWWW" sound when it fires.

I had that very same thought, and wasted half an hour making the "PWWW" noise while shooting imaginary space rocks with my finger. The only thing this accomplished was to highly agitate our dog.

Well, unfortunately, a giant space cannon can't make that "PWWW" noise, because there's no noise in space. The other main problem with this strategy is that, just as in the video game, when you start blowing up asteroids into bunches of pieces, those pieces fly around and create all kinds of havoc. By "havoc" I mean blowing up the giant space cannon and everyone sitting in it going "PWWW!" Remember what a pain that was in the game?

Also, flying saucers might show up and start shooting at the ship. Those guys have superior technology. Let's not piss them off until we get our overall weapons systems up to say, Star Trek levels.

No, the subtle methods are best, as boring and explosion-free as they are. However, the methods that scientists are currently proposing strike me as a whole lot of investment for uncertain results. Gravity, photon pressure, and playful nudges with a spacecraft all sound highly rational and make for terrific conversation around the geekier water coolers at Cape Kennedy, but asteroids are tricky, unreliable, rock-headed little jerks. We need methods that take their obvious character flaws into account.

Plus, what happens if our efforts only succeed in diverting the asteroid right into that gravitational keyhole***? It'd be just like a cosmic episode of I Love Lucy.

So allow me to conclude this post with my own modest contribution to the effort to save our planet.The good people at NASA can feel free to call me about these, if they need help with the details, or if they want an autographed copy.

Earl Fando's strategies for diverting an asteroid.

1. Large "Detour" sign in Esperanto
2. Launch Chuck Norris into space to take the asteroid out permanently
3. Giant ACME magnet
4. Point out how lovely Mars is and wouldn't you like to collide with it instead?
5. Confuse asteroid with David Blaine's card tricks and creepy personality
6. Work out a deal with the flying saucer aliens and have them take out the asteroid and deal with the rubble blowback
7. Position Major League batting champs on the International Space Station with really, REALLY big bats
8. Block it with the Moon (Sorry, Moon!)
9. Auto-tune the asteroid into a different key (isn't that how auto-tune works? It must have some useful purpose!)
10. Launch the Cookie Monster into space to eat the asteroid
11. Taze the asteroid into submission
12. Have David Beckham bend a few free kicks at the asteroid
13. Apply mathematics from national debt calculations to create a space-time wormhole, and push the asteroid through it
14. Scare off asteroid with a giant picture of a skunk
15. Scare off asteroid with a giant picture of a skank
16. Scare off asteroid with a giant picture of a skink (I can keep up this sort of thing all day.)
17. Create a massive gravitational disturbance in the asteroid's path by launching Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's assets into space
18. Lure the asteroid with $5 foot-long specials at new Subway on Pluto
19. Giant "Game Over" sign that will cause the asteroid to disappear

* Not a euphemism, surprisingly
** And, as David Letterman used to say, "It's not a competition, so no wagering."
*** I admit it. I like the expression "gravitational keyhole." It's a lot of fun to write and say. Try working it into your own personal conversations!

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