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 TO  :  ALL
 Re  :  Look!  Up in the sky!
 Press-Telegram []
 Wednesday, February 19, 1997
 Page B8
 Asteroid mania
 From Scripps Howard News Service
 Chicken Little was right.  The sky is falling, at the rate of about a ton an
 hour of galactic rocks hitting our atmosphere.
      But the little stuff doesn't interest us.  The big stuff -- killer
 asteroids from outer space -- does.  Homicidal asteroids are the stuff of
 made-for-TV movies, learned article in The New Yorker and endless newspaper
 stories filled with such titillating comparative statistics as ''a crater
 the size of Washington, D.C.,'' and waves the height of skyscrapers washing
 over Manhattan.
      Events have conspired to feed the asteroid mania.  The comet Hale-Bopp,
 at 25 miles in diameter more than enough to wipe out life on Earth, will sail
 by us in March, although at a safe remove of 123 million miles.  And
 scientists have discovered what they say is conclusive proof, a smoking
 crater, so to speak, that the impact of a massive asteroid 65 millions years
 ago wiped out the dinosaurs and made room for what eventually would be us.
      The explosions in the Gulf of Mexico, we are told in the gee-whiz
 statistics, was more powerful than all of the nuclear weapons on Earth going
 off at once.  Giant waves washed over Florida, depositing evidence of the
 impact in the Atlantic, where scientists found it just this year.
      The odds of getting his by another asteroid of that size -- one in 65
 million and growing -- strike us as pretty good.  But we wouldn't want to be
 wiped out because of carelessness and inattention, so it's reassuring that
 near-Earth asteroid tracking is a growing field in astronomy.
 Wednesday, February 19, 1997
 Page 12A
 Look!  Up in the sky!
 Meteors are making a splash all over these days.  Just Sunday, February 13,
 1997, scientists announced they had found proof that the mass extinction of
 dinosaurs 65 million years ago was caused by a gigantic meteor slamming into
 the Yucatan Peninsula.  The impact was large enough to ''perturb,'' as NASA
 scientists are wont to say, the Earth's climate and freeze the beasts.
      That news is one more revelation in our growing obsession with the
 threat posed by rogue space objects.  Less than three years ago, we watched
 as comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter's surface.  That in turn gave
 immediacy to Defense Department data, released just months later, showing that
 Earth is regularly bombarded by meteors that explode in midair with nuclear
 force.  One, in 1908 over Siberia, flattened trees for miles and produced
 strange ''white nights'' over most of Europe.
      Some events are more dudly than deadly.  In this weeks' NBC miniseries
 ''Asteroid,'' [] the beauteous single-mom
 scientist discovers an asteroid is plummeting toward the Corn Belt.  She
 notifies the handsome emergency chief, then takes him home to meet Dad.
 Many disasters ensure, including (a) a hurricane and (b) the acting.
      Overacting and overreacting:  The series and the threat seem to suit
 each other.
      Of course, we've been hit before.  And no doubt we will be hit again.
 Alarmed scientists point out that tens of thousands of objects follow paths
 that intersect Earth's orbit, not counting unknown ''long-period comets''
 that may come bursting into view at any moment.  Thousands of these objects
 are at least one kilometer wide -- large enough to produce, according to the
 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, ''the end of civilization
 and even the extinction of mankind.''
      Moreover, fewer than 10 percent of close-approach object have been
 identified, and the data we do have gives little comfort.  Asteroid 4179
 Toutatis will pass within a mere .0104 Astronomical Units (roughly, 969,000
 miles) in 2004.  No wonder we're fixated.  What happens if 4179 Toutatis
 develops a wobble?
      Some think we can use atomic weapons to divert incoming objects -- a
 handy rationale for the nuclear weapons industry.  But really, no noes knows
 what to do, and that's all right.  Uncertainty gives the threat a perverse
 value.  It provides a creative outlet for near-Earth astronomers and
 employment for actors willing to run around the set like dinosaurs with their
 heads cut off.
 Till later, MAC??? / tNATOA / [PRo-iauR]

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