Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

"Flash, I love you - but we only have twenty-eight years to save the Earth!"

Well, you knew I wasn't going to let it go unremarked, didn't you?

Nasa has identified a new asteroid threat to our planet and calculated that it could potentially impact on February 5th 2040.

2011 AG5 is a 140m-wide chunk of rock that, according to current calculations, has a 1-in-625 chance of impacting with the Earth. This has worried enough people to prompt a discussion of impact prevention strategy at the 49th session of the (deep breath!) Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The resulting press release means, of course, that the Mail has helpfully trotted out a still from 'Armageddon' (Bruce Willis & Co jetting off in a testosterone-fuelled rocket to nuke an asteroid) to give us the idea*, while a host of other news headlines fully exploit the dramatic potential of the situation.

The European Space Agency, however, are really not entering into the spirit of the thing, pointing out that 2011 AG5 has not yet been observed for the full orbit necessary to calculate its future position with any confidence. The interval and the need to gather more observational data make this 'news' story something of a damp squib.

Still, on the bright side, the coverage has produced a phrase that, even by the excruciating standards of US jargon, is a humdinger: according to CBS news website, we are currently in a situation of 'non-zero impact probability'.

*Although the picture editor has, for some unknown reason, chosen a dramatic scene showing a member of the space-suited crew holding the others at gunpoint, which I don't think is quite what the UN committee had in mind.


  1. It still sounds more dangerous than climate change - a bit.

  2. Oh dear, and we are supposed to be going out that day.

  3. AKH, it's one of those statistical things, I suppose, where probability gets tangled up with degree of severity to give some very odd answers - as in this story.

    Demetrius, we can't say they didn't give us plenty of notice; what's the betting the US are already rushing about planning massive shelters and an assortment of press opportunities for the President.