March 12, 2003

By Michael Strickland

Chicken Little Finally Gets Respect

Killer asteroids have fallen into the media spotlight again. Yesterday marked the five-year anniversary of the discovery—and subsequent hysteria—of "1997 XF11," a mile-wide asteroid that was initially thought to be on a course to collide with our planet in 2028. In related news, a scholar from a RAND think tank found his comments taken severely out of context when several media outlets recently quoted him as advocating government secrecy if a global-killer were discovered on a collision course with Earth. Most interestingly, I just learned that a small space rock (5-10 meters in diameter) exploded over the Mediterranean last June, releasing as much energy as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. As an Air Force official noted at the time, this could have had devastating consequences if the asteroid had dropped in just a little to the east (say, above hair-trigger Pakistan or India), where it might have been mistaken as a nuclear first-strike.

Despite the gloomy nature of this space news, it gratifies me to see the threat of cosmic collisions being taken so seriously by the news media and general public. When I first learned the scope of such threats during film school, I was driven to write a documentary (never produced) about the topic. This research in turn evolved into my first feature-length script COLD FIRE, a science "fiction" thriller which portrayed a large comet on a collision course with Earth. Though my idea was scooped shortly thereafter by the Hollywood studios that released DEEP IMPACT and ARMAGEDDON, it pleased me to see the subject finally getting the attention it deserved. The threat of such a cosmic collision was remote, but the potential consequences devastating.

Plummeting toward earth at as much as 50 miles per second, an asteroid or comet doesn't have to be big to make a big bang. The shooting stars that make such bright streaks across the night sky are mere pebbles that burn up on entry. The rock that blew up over the Mediterranean with the same destructive force as an atomic bomb was the size of my Ford Explorer. An impact by mile-wide 1997 XF11 (which will safely pass us by at a distance of 800,000 miles in 2028, about four times the distance to the Moon) could cause devastation worldwide, including the deaths of thousands or even millions. And anything larger is considered an "ELE," or Extinction Level Event, such as the impact of the six-mile-wide comet that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The astronomers of NASA's Spaceguard Survey finally got funded during the past decade, and are about halfway through their 10-year goal of finding 90 percent of any "Near-Earth Objects" which could potentially pose a threat. Though we're still a long way off from being able to do anything if we discover a killer asteroid heading our way, we finally heeded Chicken Little's warning and have turned our eyes skyward.

©2003 Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

What is "The Daily Strick"?

I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year, I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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3/11: Axis of Evil
3/10: Writing Kept Me From Writing
3/9: King Arthur
3/8: The Women are Smarter
3/7: Salt on Old Wounds
3/6: 3/3/03, 3:33 p.m.
3/5: Beer Day
3/4: Pulling the Trigger
3/3: Make 'Em Laugh
3/2: Whither Iraq?
3/1: Strickland Cellars
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