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A Pyrotechnic Hint

At 2.40 am on June 3, 2004, over western Washington State, residents were awoken by a sudden pyrotechnic display more enthusiastic than the "shock and awe" missiles used on Baghdad.

A bloke in Bellingham thought it was a nuclear bomb, and a woman near Monroe thought she was being beamed up by aliens; walls shook, windows rattled. Eighty seismic stations recorded the blast as 1.6 in magnitude, and 911 was swamped— the response, one could say, of an alarmed populace.

Citizens were promptly told not to be alarmed because it was established that the incoming ordinance hadn’t been the mischief of man.

A spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defence Command said the organization, which tracks missiles, rockets, and hostile aircraft headed for the United States, was aware of the meteor but quickly determined it wasn't a threat.

The longer we wait, the lesser the odds! Image by Mary Parrish of NMNH

Illustration by Mary Parrish of NMHM

Indeed with all their equipment one would hope that they would be "aware" of an incoming projectile travelling at 50,000 mph, and they must have been relieved to calculate it was only the size of a computer monitor. Something the size of a garage with the same velocity might have posed some tactical interception problems.

What is puzzling is the fact that, had the improbable missile been a slower, man-made threat from, say, some rogue state with a beef, you can guarantee there would have been an enormous hoo-haa. Emergency governmental meetings, probably culminating in a fresh war— billions would be spent!

Yet, a random missile of near nuclear proportions exploding 26 miles up was deemed nonthreatening, and the scientific community researching them receives nary a cent.

Morning news desks went on to explain the natural phenomena as "unusual but not uncommon." This meteor was bigger than most space gravel but still relatively small and harmless. Astronomers have said that much larger, faster versions of extraterrestrial matter with even more exciting pyrotechnical possibilities are in store. It’s only a matter of time.

Perhaps the celestial fireworks over Washington State should be read as a warning—a blinding hint that it is time to expand our early-warning system to include matter above the ozone as well. If the authorities and bureaucracy cannot sponsor or see beyond their terms in office, then maybe the private sector could lend a hand, like it does for untold international catastrophes.

Except in this case the "cause" is precatastrophe, and post—second chances don’t occur if the event is terminal.

It’s the one natural threat to our future that can we can predict with accuracy. At the moment, we only have partial vision of the space around us, solely due to lack of support and not to technical incapability.

We can do more than just to wish that our shooting stars would remain smaller than our TV sets and assist what has to be the most disproportionately underfunded science ever.

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