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February 17, 2013

Editorial: Meteor’s warning shot should prompt us to prepare

Early Friday, Earth took the celestial equivalent of a warning shot across the bow.

Amid the trials and tribulations of a group of cruise ship passengers enduring a sewage-soaked tour of the Caribbean, while Europe fretted over a growing scandal involving horse meat in its food supply, while the world was occupied by hundreds of concerns large and small, at least a little global attention was focused on the extraordinarily close passage of an asteroid predicted for later that day.

And that was the moment, entirely by coincidence, that a meteor entered the atmosphere and exploded several miles above the central Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The streaking meteor, its explosion and the subsequent shock wave were captured on video by dozens, if not hundreds, of Russians, who seem as enthusiastic about recording the mundane events of their lives as Americans.

The videos quickly made their way around the planet via television and the Internet. By Friday morning, most people had seen them, said something along the lines of “holy cow,” and then turned their thoughts skyward to the passage of a much larger rock called 2012 DA14, slated to pass just 17,000 miles above Earth at 2:20 p.m. that afternoon. “What if ...”

What if, indeed.

There is a great number of these rocks, large and small, in space moving in near-Earth orbits, meaning their paths and ours cross from time to time. We hear about them occasionally on the news, as scientists tell us that one will pass fairly close — usually well beyond the orbit of the Moon — and that there is little cause for alarm.

Well, what of the day when there is cause for alarm? We, meaning humanity as a whole, not just Americans, are only just now beginning to locate and track these near-Earth objects, as they are known. Right now, there is little we could do to stop one on a collision course with Earth.

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