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Watch Your Asteroid

092613 Y's Men Burrows Balch2Y’s Men of Westport-Westport welcomed Bill Burrows, a retired journalist and longtime friend of member Dr. Arthur Ashman. Burrows covered NASA and other space related topics for many years for the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

He has had a long and illustrious career reporting on NASA and on the space ventures of other countries. On Thursday he offered a warning and a prescription.

Referring to his soon to be published book, The Asteroid Threat, Burrows informed the group that our planet is being bombarded by “pebbles,” it has been struck by numerous larger extraterrestrial objects in the past, it will happen again, and that we, as a planet, should take the initiative to mitigate potential destruction.

He became interested in the topic of planetary defense after reading Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, then recalled a passage on the past February 15, “when a meteorite exploded over Chelyabinsk in Siberia, injuring over 1,400 people, knocking down walls and smashing windows and doing incredible damage.”

“Had it happened at a lower altitude, over a major metropolis, millions could have been killed and injured.”

He said “there are more than 130 impact craters on this planet,” and many more are hidden under oceans or have been erased by shifting sands.

The first sightings of planetary impacts took place in 1994, when astronomer Gene Schumacher, working at the Palomar Observatory, viewed about 22 large cometary fragments bearing down on Jupiter. Subsequent sightings by many, many other astronomers “became the first by Earthlings to actually watch an attack by a comet.”

This, Burrows stated, alerted the world as to what could happen. He added that “Every solid body that moves, including Earth, has craters.”

He is concerned that such “attacks” are ongoing. But, he commented, “I bear good news. We are not doomed. The larger the asteroid or comet the rarer it will be that it bombards the whole planet.”

To protect ourselves he said “we must establish a full fledged Department of Planetary Defense within our government,” a part of which will collaborate with the U.N. to make this a global effort.

We must accomplish two tasks. One, develop the ultimate Strategic Defense Initiative, to provide a “long term warning,” to detect asteroids and meteors perhaps 25 years before a projected collision.”

After finding such Near Earth Objects, he recommends using available technology to “nudge the potential intruder off course.” Doing so years before they seem likely to hit enables a small nudge to create a large course deviation.

Second, he said the human race “must spread out, or wait around to die.” We should colonize the Moon, and at the behest of an associate, “we must keep a continuously updated record of our civilization at one of the poles, and on the Moon” in the same manner as we back up our hard drives.

Burrows closed with a touch of humor. He used an old vaudeville reference to describe a problem NASA fell prey to – “Never follow a dog act.” He continued “Landing men on the moon was a dog act, and Apollo 17 was the sixth such event. It captivated the world, then attention fell off so quickly that the final three missions were scrubbed.” NASA is continuing to try to justify its existence. “It is comatose, a victim of its success.”

Roy Fuchs