O Me of Little Faith

Back in 2005, my book Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse listed six possible ways the world might come to end via natural disaster. At the top of the list? Killer asteroid impact, which may or may not involve Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck and a weepy Aerosmith song. (Wow. Just linked to IMDB and discovered that movie came out in 1998. Ten years ago! Time flies, like Billy Bob Thornton in a space suit.)

Here’s what you should know. Most scientists now believe that the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago by the asteroid or comet that slammed into sea near the Yucatan Peninsula, leaving a 186-mile long hole. Mass extinction followed. Ninety percent of species vanished.

And in 1908, a comet fragment 130 feet wide dropped onto Tunguska, Siberia. It exploded in the air and flattened a thousand square miles of uninhabited forest. Its force of detonation would have been something like 10 megatons — 700 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Had it hit modern-day New York or a related metropolis? The city would have disappeared.

Which is why NASA’s always on the lookout for asteroids that have the potential to hit our planet. Because it could be bad. Return to the Ice Age bad (and not the kind of Ice Age that has funny talking mastodons). A piece of space debris with a six-mile diameter could pretty much cause global extinction. They seem to blast through our atmosphere every 50 to 100 million years, and more than a thousand of these monsters are thought to be floating around in Earth’s general vicinity. So far everything’s cool, but we’re paying attention.

Anyway, not long ago the brains at NASA fixed upon 99942 Apophis, a 1350-foot long asteroid with a goofy name. They didn’t fix upon it very long, though, because they concluded pretty quickly that, if Apophis hit the earth, it would happen in 2029, and there was only a 1 in 45,000 chance that would happen. Not too worrisome.

But wait. Some 13 year-old German kid named Nico Marquardt — getting by with only a telescope and a calculator and an even bigger brain than the NASA geniuses — took a look at Apophis on his own. He noticed that NASA apparently made a mistake in their calculations. Sure, Apophis could miss the Earth in 2029, but what if, in the process of not destroying us, it hit one of our thousands of communications satellites? And what if that strike knocked Apophis off-course? What then?

He concluded that if that were to occur, there was a 1 in 450 chance Apophis would strike the earth. Not in 2029, but in 2036.

There is a major difference between 1-in-45,000 odds and 1-in-450 odds. And NASA admitted that, yep, the boy was right. They hadn’t thought about that whole satellite thing.

So…what do you have planned for 2036? And what else do our 13-year-old astronomy geeks need to be looking for?

[Update: Wait! That kid made some miscalculations. Upon further review, NASA now says they are confident in their calculations and you don’t have to cancel everything you have planned in 2036. I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson here: you can’t trust complicated logarithms in the hands of 13 year-olds. You can’t always trust NASA, either.]

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