We're getting so many reassurances from NASA these days that the world is not about to be destroyed by some space-borne phenomenon that I'm starting to wonder if there's something the space agency isn't telling us.
Aside from falling satellites--one of which apparently threatened to rain space junk down perhaps a little too close to a couple of heavily populated Chinese cities--there was that aircraft-carrier-size asteroid that didn't, repeat didn't, sideswipe the Earth this past week (though it got closer than the moon).
Now there's the specter of a giant solar flare turning the Earth into a crispy critter sometime next year. But don't worry, our friends at NASA cheerfully assure us in a recent post on the agency's Web site, this version of the apocalypse isn't likely to occur either.
The timing of the post (which appeared earlier this week) is tied to the coming expiration of the current year and the arrival of 2012, which, thanks in part to Hollywood, has apparently entered our collective psyches as a strong candidate for the year that will mark the end of the world as we know it.
Despite the admirably active imaginations of a screenwriter or two, however, neutrinos from a massive solar flare probably won't penetrate the Earth, cause its core to heat rapidly, and bring the famous statue of Jesus that overlooks Rio de Janeiro tumbling down in tragically dramatic fashion as humanity is snuffed out by all manner of natural castastrophe.
"Given a legitimate need to protect Earth from the most intense forms of space weather--great bursts of electromagnetic energy and particles that can sometimes stream from the sun--some people worry that a gigantic 'killer solar flare' could hurl enough energy to destroy Earth," NASA said in its recent post. "Citing the accurate fact that solar activity is currently ramping up in its standard 11-year cycle, there are those who believe that 2012 could be coincident with such a flare."
But, the agency continues, though solar explosions and other sun-related phenomena could conceivably affect satellite control mechanisms, airplane navigation systems, and electronic time-keeping devices that govern global financial transactions, "there simply isn't enough energy in the sun to send a killer fireball 93 million miles to destroy Earth."
Whew! Thank goodness for that.
As for those other, relatively minor disruptions, the agency maintains that proper precautions are key:
"During a hurricane watch," NASA helpfully explains, "a homeowner can stay put...or he can seal up the house, turn off the electronics, and get out of the way. Similarly, scientists at NASA and NOAA give warnings to electric companies, spacecraft operators, and airline pilots before a [solar explosion known as a coronal mass ejection] comes to Earth so that these groups can take proper precautions.
"Improving these predictive abilities the same way weather prediction has improved over the last few decades is one of the reasons NASA studies the sun and space weather. We can't ignore space weather, but we can take appropriate measures to protect ourselves."
And though the solar-activity cycle is indeed picking up steam, NASA points out that it's due to peak in late 2013 or early 2014--not 2012--and that anyone over 11 years old has already lived through such a peak without any problems.
I'm glad we've gotten all that cleared up.
Now I'm waiting on the NASA release that will reassure me that NASA releases about the nonimminent end of the world are not in fact signs of imminent oblivion.
I'm sure we'll see that one soon. And I'll be happy to report on it, once I've grabbed my sunscreen and my raincoat, sealed up the house, turned off the electronics, and gotten out of the way.
In the meantime, here's a nicely produced NASA video that should help you lay your 2012 fears to rest: