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Practice Makes Perfect When Keeping the Asteroids at Bay

18 June 2001 | The Canberra Times

By Graham Cooke

AS REGULAR readers of this column will know, I have grave concerns about the Earth being struck by a large and hitherto unknown asteroid that would plunge humanity down the path to extinction.

I have campaigned long and hard for a global watch on the heavens to ensure that we are not taken by surprise by such an unwelcome visitor; that at least we have the opportunity of firing off a few nuclear missiles at it, even if this does nothing more than ease our frustrations.

In the latest edition of the science magazine Newton, Wilson da Silva provides an imaginative reconstruction of the last major asteroid impact, 65 million years ago an event that dumped the dinosaurs into the dustbin of pre-history.

As the magazine says with classic understatement, ‘It was not a good day to be a dinosaur. In fact, it was not a good day to be on the surface of the Earth at all.’ The catalogue of calamity included tidal waves, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, lava flows, poisonous gases released from below the Earth’s crust and molten rocks from the initial explosion raining back to the surface.

After that, of course, the dust thrown into the upper atmosphere blanked out the sun and caused a decades-long ‘nuclear’ winter. Under a final section, ‘Could it Happen Again?’, da Silva says the real question is not if, but when. Although asteroids of plant-killing size are a rarity (about one every 100 million years) they are, apart from nuclear warfare, about the only things that could imperil civilisation itself directly and immediately.

I believe each country should devote a fraction of its science budget to creating an organisation that searches for these pieces of rock and that every human being on the planet should be provided with small telescopes or binoculars to ensure that the heavens are kept under the closest of scrutinies.

We may also locate harmless asteroids for use as target practice, so we get good at blowing them to smithereens. I am not sure that I would ever want to upgrade my current computer.


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