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

Friday, 31 May 2013

1998 QE2 - Sailing By

Since we started the practice of raising a glass to passing asteroids, the things have been whizzing by at gratifyingly frequent intervals.

Even more happily, these flybys are often at particularly opportune times for carousing and this week is no exception; 1998 QE2 will be at its nearest point at the undeniably convenient hour of 10pm BST this Friday, with live telescope images on SLOOH starting at 9.30.

Admittedly, at 3.6 million miles away, it's not what you'd call a narrow squeak, but it is an impressive 1.7 miles in diameter (which, by happy geological coincidence, is exactly the length of the tree-eating Dune du Pyla in south-west France which got the Daily Mail so excited on a slow news day recently).

Even more excitingly, it's bringing along its own moon, something that will doubtless be on the agenda today between 7 and 8pm BST, when 'NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver will participate in a White House "We the Geeks" Google+ Hangout. Participants will discuss...' Be still, my beating heart! ... 'asteroid identification, characterization, resource utilization and hazard mitigation.'

This impending close approach has led to some highly entertaining headlines, my current favourite being this one from the International Business Times (Australian edition):

Huge Asteroid Will Pass Earth on May 31, Similar to What Killed Dinosaurs

That, of course, is the 'handle' that makes it newsworthy. For the media, this is a potential Extinction Level Event; the small matter of it missing us by over three and a half million miles has been largely overlooked in the imaginative illustrations the various editors have chosen to depict an interplanetary collision in all its glory.

And, in a fine example of dumbing-down, the coincidental designation, assigned according to clearly-defined protocols, has led all and sundry to express its size in terms of ocean liners - it is 9 times as long as its namesake, if you must know (bonus points to the journalist who adds that the accompanying moon is 'twice the size of an ocean liner'.)

Meanwhile, there's more explosive artwork in reports that, since all the currently proposed methods to deter earthbound asteroids (including the ingenious paintball solution) require at least ten years notice, if anything unexpected pops up in the meantime, it looks as if we're back to Bruce Willis and the nukes.

That being so, I invite you to join me in a toast tonight in the hope that our current run of luck continues to hold.

(I am indebted to JuliaM for alerting me to this flyby in time to drop into the local brewery and pick up a case of  their finest.)

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