Wednesday, September 8, 2010

September 8: Asteroids

I was kind of thrilled to read on this morning about our close encounter with two asteroids today. Apparently, however, it happens all the time. Our astronomers just haven't been paying close enough attention.

David Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near Earth Program (by which "near Earth" seems to be defined as within 28 million miles of our planet), says: 
"We have only recently appreciated how many of these objects are in near Earth's space and [it's] best that we keep track of them and find them," he said. "I think this is Mother Nature's way of firing a shot over the bow and warning Earth-based astronomers that we have a lot of work to do." Although his metaphor seems a bit over the top--I just can't imagine Mother Nature (a.k.a. the solar system) cares all that much about how alert astronomers are on any planet--I find his perspective interesting. The space around Earth really is closer than we imagined to the old video game Asteroids, with shards and fragments of cosmic bits buzzing by us all the time. (Also, the Near Earth Program sounds like something that would be featured in an apocalyptic movie in which a giant asteroid is hurtling toward earth and only one scientist can save us all from certain doom... how come I learn about these cool-sounding jobs when it's too late to jump on a new career track?)

The two small chunks of space matter passed or were going to pass closer to Earth than the moon. The disappointing fact was that they're so small we couldn't see them without a decent telescope. They're so small, in fact, that their nearness won't have any discernible effect on us at all, unlike the moon's regular tugging of the tides and, some believe, our moods. One of the asteroids is about the size of our shed out back, the other, about the size of our house (which is described as a bungalow, so we're talking pretty darn small). For some reason, images from James and the Giant Peach are coming to mind...

Cosmic particles
unseen but passing close by--
can you feel their tug?

Bonus haiku, in the style of classic romantic Japanese poetry:

Is it the asteroid
passing close or is it you
tugging my heartstrings?

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