Watch this space

The arrival of the asteroids was, presumably, known for decades, but you know how it is with bureaucracy. No one knew which department had the jurisdiction to handle the issue


Suresh Menon | May 25, 2012

It was the dream of many contemporaries in school to work in NASA; space exploration had a glamour those days. I suspect that some of them actually made it there, going by two recent news reports:  Painting asteroids and no-fly zones on the moon.

It is not a line of dialogue that Brad Pitt or George Clooney might mouth with comfort. After all, when asteroids have threatened to collide with the earth in the past, Hollywood stars have said, if they were Clint Eastwood, “Let’s shoot the so-and-so down,” or, if they were John Cusack, “I knew 2012 came after 2011.” The latest Oscar star Jean Dujardin would simply have tap-danced a message while his dog played dead.

You can imagine the panic (in a movie if not in real life) should the threat get closer and Pitt (or Clooney) had to say: “Emergency! An asteroid is about to strike. Let’s paint it.”

What? Paint a roving (and possibly raving) asteroid? Yet, that is what a NASA scientist suggests we do to asteroid 2012 DA14 as it approaches us. It is a 60-metre asteroid and the meeting with the earth is scheduled for February 15, 2013 (make a note of that in your diary; we can’t have celestial events clashing with social ones after all).

It was so much easier in the old days when asteroids were attacked by big guns from a spaceship or had spaceships crash into them. These spaceships, built by men in white coats who looked suspiciously like Hollywood heart throbs, cost zillions of dollars but saved mankind.

The paint, according to the scientist, would change the asteroid’s ability to reflect sunlight, alter its spin and change its temperature. This triple-whammy would leave it feeling foolish, incompetent and silly respectively. It would also change its course, although Russian scientists are objecting to that for they ask the simple but unanswerable question: In that case, what happens when the asteroid returns in 2056?

Asteroids, like unpopular uncles, tend to return for a visit every so many years and if, again like uncles, they are not discouraged the first time around by having spaceships attack them, tend to cause havoc each time. I mean, I remember an uncle who, on his first visit, nearly set fire to the house because he thought he was watering the plants when in fact he was petrolling them.
The problem with Planet Earth is that we just don’t have enough time to build either a spaceship with big guns, or, not to put too fine a point on it, any spaceships at all in the time available. The arrival of the asteroids was, presumably, known for decades, but you know how it is with bureaucracy. No one knew which department had the jurisdiction to handle the issue. Hopefully, scientists will not use that excuse in 2056 – let’s start building now.

How can we help, you ask? Simple. Keep your head down and watch the skies.
The moon, meanwhile, is giving us earthlings a second chance. Although it has no legal right to do so, NASA has designated some areas of the moon as ‘no-fly zones.’

The Apollo 11 site is obviously off limits. In case souvenir hunters of the future make a rush for the Apollo 11 (and Apollo 17) site, there will be 75-metre walls to discourage them. This is like having a 12-foot-and-some wall on earth.

There’s more. Future moon-settlers will have to keep clear of sites where food has been discarded (“This is where the first burger was half-eaten and thrown away by man who then complained of the sogginess of the fries and threatened to write a letter to The Times”, the placard is likely to say). Likewise, the result of eating such burgers. Sensitive sign-makers are expected to say something about the ‘many faces of man’, leaving it to the imagination to figure out which vowel is missing and from where.

We are not very clear about what caused the dinosaur population to be wiped out; future scientists don’t want to make silly guesses about why the burger population on the moon met the same fate. Hence NASA’s concern. And its hope that unlike on earth, picnickers will leave burgers and chips behind rather than carry them back home. The moon cannot be the new earth.



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