I love reading the letters-to-the-editor and the Wisdom-from-the-Web comments that detail the significant concerns of the valley’s residents.  While issues such as the height of the proposed new Crossroads center, the cyclist v. pedestrian war-of-the-pathways, and the ever controversial Eaton Ranch have dominated the op-ed pages in recent weeks, I nevertheless thought it prudent to alert the community to another potential incommodity.  But first, some background on a seemingly unrelated topic.

The word asteroid literally means “star-like object,” but these objects should have been called planetoids because if they were actually star-like, i.e. heavenly objects capable of self-sustaining nuclear fusion (like our sun) we might be able to see them out there in the vastness of space—and being able to see them could be a “good thing” depending upon one’s point of view.

What’s that old expression; “What we don’t’ know won’t hurt us.”  Well, not so fast, because zooming around in the (almost) vacuum of space there are plenty of things that can hurt us—big time!

It’s estimated that there are about a billion asteroids orbiting the sun, primarily in the region between Mars and Jupiter.  Occasionally a few are shaken from their orbits by Jupiter’s perturbations and are sent hurtling our way.  It’s also estimated that about a 100 million of these asteroids are large enough to actually cause some damage.  (An asteroid the size of a small East Vail duplex colliding with planet earth—let’s say in the Wal-Mart parking lot—would vaporize the entire valley in an instant.)

Scientists estimate that roughly two thousand asteroids large enough to imperil civilized society regularly cross earth’s orbit.  The first known (and I emphasize the word known) asteroid that could have eliminated most if not all life on this planet was spotted and tracked in 1991.  It missed the earth by 106,000 miles, a distance in cosmic terms, to quote author Bill Bryson, “…tantamount to a rifle shot passing through the sleeve of a shirt and not touching the arm.”

Two years later another large asteroid passed within 90,000 miles of us.  What’s disturbing about these events is that in neither case did scientists see them coming; they were observed only after they had already passed.  (It’s also estimated that such ‘near misses’ occur two or three times per week.)

So what’s the problem here and why isn’t the administration doing something to protect us?  Well, the reality is that even an asteroid the size of Vail Village couldn’t be picked-up by any earth telescopes until it was perhaps only a day or two from us, and then only if the telescope was trained on it.

In all likelihood a really big asteroid, like the suspected six-mile diameter rock that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, wouldn’t be noticed by anyone until it began to heat up in our atmosphere.

Because asteroids travel at about 40,000 miles per hour, our first inkling that a collision with earth was imminent would be the compression of the air in front of it.  The air ahead of the asteroid would heat up to about 60,000 degrees Kelvin (10 times the temperature of the sun’s surface) and would burn up everything on the earth’s surface that lay in front of it, i.e. cars, houses, ski lifts, and certainly all of Vail’s New Dawn like a piece of cellophane in a fireplace.  This would occur about a second or so prior to impact.

Let’s assume the impact point of this super asteroid was somewhere near the Seasons Building in Avon; within a millionth of a second after it struck the earth, everything from Ft. Collins to Grand Junction would be vaporized.  People living outside the immediate blast area in places like Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Cheyenne, would become aware of the event by witnessing the brightest light ever seen by human eyes, followed by a roiling black cloud reaching high into the sky—think Hiroshima times a couple of hundred million.

Because this veil of darkness would travel many times faster than the speed of sound, the spectacle would be soundless so a person witnessing the event from say the honeymoon suite in the Scottsdale Marriott, would see the impending tumult approach an instant before extinction.

Within the first five minutes everything between Las Vegas and Kansas City would either be obliterated or on fire.  People in San Francisco would be knocked off their feet (except maybe for professional baseball players whose steroid-enhanced legs might keep them upright.)

What would follow is subject to conjecture, but in all likelihood the event would set off a series of earthquakes, followed by volcanic eruptions and tsunamis that would dwarf what the Far East experienced last December.

Within hours burning debris and a cloud of black smoke would envelope the planet and an estimated 1.5 billion people would perish the first day.  Because of the damage to the ionosphere, worldwide communications would effectively be shut down and 99.9999% of humanity would have no idea of what was happening as the 4.5 billion survivors faced an agonizingly slow death under a blanket of cold and darkness.

So what problems are you having today that’s causing you to lose sleep?

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