Of asteroids and black holes

Before Bruce Willis diminished his star by acting in B-movies, he had certifiable blockbusters, like the “Die Hard” series and 1998’s Armageddon. The latter had him chasing with shotgun buckshot all around a sea oil rig the unwanted lover of his daughter, characters played by Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler, respectively.

That film had Willis and Affleck leading a crew of misfits who were, nonetheless, the best in what they do. The mission: Drill a hole into an asteroid just miles away as it hurtles into Earth, threatening to kill every life form on the planet.

They’re supposed to stuff a nuclear bomb into the drilled hole, so they can blow the country-sized rock into smithereens and avert a repeat of the Ice Age-spurring event that scientists say killed all the dinosaurs.

With Aerosmith’s tear-jerker ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” as soundtrack, the film climaxes with Willis sending off members of the crew, including Affleck, so he can ride in his lonesome to the space rock and manually detonate the bomb and save Earth.

With his life flashing before his eyes, especially priceless moments shared with his daughter, Willis sets off the bomb to save the day. It’s Hollywood at its melodramatic best; a couple of hours’ worth the price of the admission tickets.

This week, US space agency NASA breathes life into the science fiction peg of Armageddon as it attempts what has been described as a “feat humanity has never before accomplished,” an operation to deliberately crash a spacecraft launched last November into an asteroid at 23,000 kilometers per hour.

NASA says it will livestream the impact between the car-sized DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft (7:14 p.m. Eastern Time, 2314 GMA) and Dimorphos, hoping to push it into a smaller orbit around the asteroid Didymos.

For us, earthlings, there’s no reason to panic as the two asteroids do not pose any threat to Earth — not by any stretch of Carl Sagan’s imagination, according to NASA. Didymos and Dimorphos, scientists maintain, loop around the Sun and passes about seven miles from Earth at their nearest approach.

Just seven miles, really? That’s too close for comfort to non-rocket scientists like most of us are.

Nonetheless, the undertaking by NASA should rank high among space exploration milestones, if not at the very top, because its objective is not just to get ahead of any space race or to put into orbit hundreds more satellites now already clogging Earth’s space with junks.

No less than the very survival of all species on Earth would be served by the DART experiment as another asteroid big enough to wipe all living things off the face of the planet is just a question of when.

This is one of those endeavors, like efforts to ease the effects of climate change, that mankind should engage in instead of trying to exterminate people or annex territories just like what’s happening in Ukraine with Russia’s bull-headed invasion of its neighbor.

While extinction-level asteroid strikes are not being seen within this lifetime, preparing for such an eventuality right now, as what NASA is doing, is the prudent thing to do. Practice makes perfect, but scientists must assure ordinary people that there’d be a ghost of a chance of any catastrophic outcome arising from such undertakings.

Fear of the unknown, especially when the science is not yet established, is not something to just cavalierly laugh about as man, through technology, has proven to be adept at creating things that destroy en masse like nuclear bombs. Even when not engaged in creating weapons, scientists belong to that lot that never fails to tantalize and scare us at the same time.

Remember the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator boasting 27 kilometers of superconducting magnets? When it was first fired up in 2010 175 meters deep beneath the France-Switzerland border, some feared it might create a black hole big enough to swallow the Earth.

Scientists maintained that the collider was capable of creating black holes but too tiny to be threatening. Hope they’re right. That fear of a black hole swallowing us remains to this day.

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