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Suresh Menon: Simply out of this world...

Suresh Menon is a writer based in India. In his youth he set out to change the world but later decided to leave it as it is

By Suresh Menon for Friday magazine
00:00 March 16, 2012

It is not a line of dialogue that Brad Pitt or George Clooney might mouth with comfort. After all, when asteroids have threatened to collide with the earth in the past, Hollywood stars have said, if they were Clint Eastwood, "Let's shoot the so-and-so down," or, if they were John Cusack, "I knew 2012 came after 2011." The latest Oscar star, Jean Dujardin, would simply have tap-danced a message while his dog played dead.

You can imagine the panic (in a movie, if not in real life) should the threat get closer and Pitt (or Clooney) had to say: "Emergency! An asteroid is about to strike. Let's paint it."

What? Paint a roving (and possibly raving) asteroid? Yet, that is what a Nasa scientist suggests we do to asteroid 2012 DA14 as it approaches us. It is a 60-metre asteroid and the meeting with the earth is scheduled for February 15, 2013 (make a note of that in your diary; we can't have celestial events clashing with social ones after all).

It was so much easier in the old days when asteroids were attacked by big guns from a spaceship or had spaceships crash into them. These spaceships, built by men in white coats who looked suspiciously like Hollywood heart-throbs, cost zillions of dollars but saved mankind.

The paint, according to the scientist, would change the asteroid's ability to reflect sunlight, alter its spin and change its temperature. This triple-whammy would leave it feeling incompetent, foolish and silly. It would also change its course, although Russian scientists are objecting to that for they ask the simple but unanswerable question: "In that case, what happens when the asteroid returns in 2056?"

Asteroids, like unpopular uncles, tend to return for a visit every so many years and if, again like uncles, they are not discouraged the first time around by having spaceships attack them, tend to cause havoc each time. I mean, I remember an uncle who, on his first visit, nearly set fire to the house because he thought he was watering the plants when in fact he was dousing them with petrol.

The problem with Planet Earth is that we just don't have enough time to build either a spaceship with big guns, or - not to put too fine a point on it - any spaceships at all in the time available. The arrival of the asteroids was, presumably, known for decades, but you know how it is with bureaucracy. No one knew which department had the jurisdiction to handle the issue. Hopefully, scientists will not use that excuse in 2056 - let's start building now.

How can I help, you ask? Simple. Keep your head down and watch the skies.