Astronomers had some good news for us this week. An asteroid called Apophis passed by in its orbit about fourteen million kilometers away from us. But if the name sounds familiar (beyond references in the Stargate TV series) it’s because in 2004 there were alarming predictions that Apophis could strike the Earth. It didn’t then, but scientists calculated that it would come close in 2029, and had a 1 in 250,000 chance of impacting our planet in 2036. Now, Apophis isn’t huge but it’s moving at tremendous speed, so it would cause a lot of local damage if it were to hit us (though not planet-wide extinctions).

This week’s pass gave astronomers a much better look at Apophis. The bad news is that it’s actually bigger than they’d earlier thought—about 325 meters in diameter. But the good news is that the chance of it hitting Earth in 3036 has been downgraded to 1 in more than 7 million.

You might be breathing a sigh of relief (or you might say, “Hey, I still buy lottery tickets.”)

In any case, if you really want an excuse to cry that the sky is falling, there is one asteroid that will actually pass by the Earth closer than the orbit of some satellites this coming February 15th. It’s called 2012DA14 and it’s about 45 meters across—say, a large building lot.

Checking your home insurance policy fine print for asteroids?

People are already saying we need to wake up and prepare defenses against this kind of hazard, and there are projects in the brainstorming stages, but it will be years before any of them are ready.

For now, we call these objects “near-Earth asteroids”. Maybe one day we’ll call them “target practice”.


What does a giant rock hurtling toward Earth have to do with sharks?

My story “Saviour”. It’s an example of how information from widely different sources can come together to provide inspiration.

From 2004 - 2006 there was some scientific concern that the asteroid Apophis would come very close to Earth, or even strike the planet in 2029. Although better calculations disproved that, there was still a chance that the 2029 pass would alter Apophis’ orbit enough to provide a collision with Earth in 2036. The results would be catastrophic, but fortunately more recent computations have put the odds of a collision at one in a quarter-million. Still, the episode is obvious grist for science fictions stories. Who could forget the two 1998 Hollywood blockbusters Armageddon and Deep Impact (even if you’ve tried to)? Both movies had that same doomsday premise: a killer asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

In 2006 I had the opportunity to interview Rob Stewart, the man behind an excellent documentary film called Sharkwater. The film details how underwater cameraman Stewart set out to debunk the myths about sharks and ended up in serious danger from human predators instead. The most unforgettable element of Sharkwater is the devastating damage being done to the shark population by the shark finning industry, harvesting shark fins only for the status dish of shark fin soup. What threatens sharks threatens the whole ecosystem of the oceans. But then there are so many ways in which the human race is chasing other Earth species into extinction.

I was strongly affected by the movie, and its message somehow became entangled in my mind with apocalyptic threats to the human species. The result is “Saviour.”

It’s another story, like “Hurricane”, that seems at first glance to be old hat. Knowing that time-challenged editors buried under an avalanche of submissions look for the earliest-possible excuses to reject stories, I didn’t think many would give “Saviour” a chance and read it all the way to the end. So I’ve rarely submitted it anywhere (and my fears have been proven correct the few times I did submit it). But I think it’s an interesting take on the doomsday premise, and a story with something to say. Please have a look. But read it to the end!