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COLLISION COURSE: COSMIC IMPACTS AND LIFE ON EARTH by Fred Bortz (Millbrook Press, 2001, ages 10-up) Full color, reinforced library binding, ISBN#0761314032.

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Prologue from the 2001 edition: TARGET EARTH

March 13, 1998, did not live up to what superstitious people expected. Instead of being filled with misfortune, that Friday the thirteenth turned out to be Earth's lucky day!

The previous day, newspapers had warned of a possible global calamity. First calculations of the orbit of the newly discovered mile-wide Asteroid 1997 XF11 indicated it would come very close to our planet in 2028. It might even be on a collision course! Could the newly released science-fiction movies Armageddon and Deep Impact be coming true?

Calculating the orbit of an asteroid or comet is difficult, especially when astronomers have no more than a few observations only weeks apart. So they quickly looked for old photographs that might have unnoticed images of the asteroid. Such images -- if they existed -- would lead to better calculations of the space rock's orbit.

Luck was with the astronomers -- and the rest of us. They found the photographs, and the news from the new calculations was good. Instead of a cosmic close shave at 30,000 miles -- only one-eighth the distance to the moon -- Asteroid 1997 XF11 will miss our planet at a scary but comfortable distance of 600,000 miles in 2028. Earth has had many closer calls than that.

In 1908, in the isolated Tunguska region of Siberia in Russia, a giant blast devastated an area half the size of the state of Rhode Island. It was most likely caused by a small comet or asteroid that plowed through Earth's atmosphere, nearly reaching the ground before it exploded.

In 1978, scientists found a surprisingly large amount of the metal called iridium in a layer of 65 million-year-old clay, sandwiched between two layers of rock. The iridium was the first evidence that a ten-kilometer (six-mile) wide asteroid or comet had hit Earth, setting off a series of environmental calamities that wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

In 1994, telescopes all around the world were focused on Jupiter as more than twenty pieces of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plunged, one after the other, into the planet's cloud tops, leaving dark scars that were visible for years.

The asteroid 1997 XF11 scare, the Tunguska event, the "iridium anomaly," and the dramatic end of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 all remind us that big rocks can -- and do -- fall from the sky. Throughout the Solar System, countless comets and asteroids, thousands of them large enough to change life on our world forever if they hit, follow paths that cross Earth's orbit.

We should not ask whether Earth will experience other cosmic collisions, but when. Will we see the rock coming? Will we be able to turn it away or reduce the damage? If it hits, will it destroy cities, our civilization, or even our species? Some of the answers to those questions will be found in science or technology, but others will be found in the minds, skills, and courage of the living creatures who call Target Earth their home.

This book tells the stories of past cosmic collisions. It also describes how people are beginning to prepare for the next one. Though that cosmic Deep Impact or Armageddon is unlikely to happen in your lifetime, you cannot be certain that it won't. The future of life as we know it may be in the hands of your generation.

Will you and others who share your world be ready?

Click for cosmic collision updates and links.

Text copyright 2001 by Alfred B. Bortz, all rights reserved

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