Rocky Horror?

How likely is it that we’ll be wiped out by an asteroid...




Q: How likely is it that we’ll be wiped out by an asteroid any time soon?

A: About as likely as Congress getting an approval rating of more than 20 percent from the electorate during this millennium. Which is to say, nearly zero.

“We have catalogued all the asteroids large enough to produce global devastation and none of them are threatening Earth now,’’ says Dr. Humberto Campins, professor of physics and astronomy at UCF and an international expert on asteroids.  But 169 years from now? Well, there’s this pesky 1/3-mile-wide asteroid with the catchy moniker of 1999 RQ36 whose orbit is such that it might threaten Earth.

Instead of fearing RQ36, however, we are embracing it. Campins is on NASA’s Osiris-REx team, which plans to launch a craft in 2016 that will go to the asteroid and return with some dirt. That sample could give us clues about the origins of life on our planet, Campins says, as well as provide information about RQ’s composition in case we need a strategy to deflect it. Of course we must be careful because RQ is basically a pile of rubble so hitting it too hard with whatever we have available 17 decades from now would mean getting pelted by a shower of devastating rocks rather than one big one.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As Campins points out, Earth gets hit by a big asteroid only once every 3 million to 10 million years. And for all the buzz about how close to us certain asteroids come, consider this: It’s not the distance that’s critical when assessing the potential calamity but whether a rock crosses Earth’s orbit. For instance on February 15 an asteroid known as 2012 DA14 will pass within 16,000 miles—so close it’s between us and our communications satellites. But because it’s not in our orbit, it’s a cream puff.

Want to see it? Then head out to the Pegasus Auditorium in UCF’s student union on that day. From 1 to 3 p.m. there will be an asteroid viewing party where you can watch live feeds of the big rock from telescopes located in Spain. Campins and other researchers will be at UCF to guide partygoers through the flyby. For more info, go to www.cos.ucf.edu/asteroid.

Q: What’s the story behind the odd-looking Monument of States?

A: The monolith was formed 70 years ago when a smallish asteroid plowed into Kissimmee Lakefront Park, then cooled into the shape of a 40-foot-high quasi-obelisk. A pair of disembodied hands with hammer and chisel soon appeared and began carving the names of the states.

But that’s just one theory. Another, more credible one says that the Kissimmee All States Tourist Club conceived of the monument in September 1941, as a symbol of unity during World War II. A couple of former mayors spearheaded the gathering of a lot of stone and sand, along with rocks from the (then) 48 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and 21 foreign countries. Governors from each of the states and many heads of state signed the rocks they sent.

It’s good old American concrete, tons and tons of it. So eat our dust, asteroids. 

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