Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Asteroids and Foam

The same thing has been bugging me about the recent "near-miss" of a small asteroid and yesterday's launch of the space shuttle Discovery. This has to do with both real and misplaced concerns and whether or not we are looking.

Asteroids like 2004 XP14 have been coming close to the Earth for 4.5 billion years. Some hit, most miss. It's only been recently that we have heard about these near-misses in the news, as it has only been recently that we have been looking. While it is good that we are now concerned and looking out for hazardous asteroids, and while news coverage of these near-misses helps keep the danger in mind, we don't need to panic when an asteroid has a near-miss.

It is very similar with the space shuttle and news stories about it losing foam during liftoff. Many people have the impression that the falling foam is a new problem, but this has been happening since the first shuttle launch. It was not until the tragic loss of Columbia that people became aware of the danger and NASA started watching for foam. Now, every little piece is scrutinized, as it should be, but that does not mean that the public needs to be scared for our astronauts with every falling bit of foam.

Should we be on the lookout for rogue asteroids and falling shuttle foam? The answer is undeniably YES! Do you need to worry about every near miss and every lost piece of foam? NO. It is impossible and impractical to prevent every near-miss of an asteroid and every chunk of falling foam. What is important is that scientists and engineers keep watching and that the public stay concerned but not fearful with each event. If we don't watch, we can miss the one event that will lead to disaster, as happened with Columbia. But paranoia is not healthy, either.

So, keep your eyes open and your wits about you!

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