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Thoughts & Views: Don’t ‘space out’ on finding new worlds

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When I was a kid in grade school in the late ‘50s, I remember reading about the bright prospect of electric cars on the horizon.

Now, despite the best efforts of Detroit to kill them, we’re seeing some results, thanks to Tesla Motors. (If they find a way to stop car batteries from catching fire….) As for Detroit, well, GM is turning out the Chevy Volt to compete with Tesla. As Mel Allen might have said: How about that….

We also used to read about space exploration and how any day, we’d be catching up to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch. And we did.

More recently, though, we began going backwards by partially dismantling NASA. No more trips to the moon. Don’t even think about astronauts going to Mars, no matter if there are forms of life there.

But hold on a minute, you federal sorry-eyed staracrats! You can’t tell me to take that galaxy and shove it. Not after what the New York Times reported last week.

First, on Tuesday, Nov. 5, Times reporter Dennis Overbye let us know that based on data collected by NASA’s Kepler-spacecraft, astronomers are learning that there could be “as many as 40 billion habitable Earthsize planets in the galaxy. And “the nearest such planet might be only 12 light-years away,” which, one scientist affirmed, “would be visible to the naked eye.”

Doesn’t that news make you want to climb into the nearest spacesuit and activate the launch code?

Then on Thursday, Nov. 7, Times reporter Kenneth Chang revealed two ominous developments happening in the “final frontier.”

First, the European Space Agency’s Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite, which was launched in March 2009 to map Earth’s gravitational field while flying in an orbit between 160 and 140 miles above the planet, was expected to drop out of orbit within days for an uncontrolled re-entry and, ultimately, fragment in our atmosphere and crash somewhere. Scientists were hoping to track it in time to predict where it will come down.

Secondly, scientists are predicting that we could be in for an increasing number of asteroid strikes, like the one that exploded, shattering windows and injuring more than 1,000 people, in Chelyabinski in Russia in February. While the next incident may not happen for another 10 years or more, scientists are pressing for the development of an asteroid detection system as a precaution.

Thus are we presented with the image of space as a double-edged sword – like the constellation of Orion beckoning but also threatening would-be space voyagers. To ignore the possibility of new worlds awaiting our discovery is wrongheaded. Who knows how long our planet will last, given the rate at which we’re running out of natural resources by choking our air, polluting and drying up our waterways, felling our forests, despoiling the land, over-consuming.

One day, perhaps, as our Earth is threatened with extinction, we will be seeing droves of people fleeing – in privately manufactured spacecrafts – to those distant ecto-planets as a last refuge.

And, when they arrive, as a final irony, will they be locked up – or turned away – as illegal immigrants?

Let us hope that our distant “neighbors” will be more enlightened beings than our poor lot here on Planet Earth.

– Ron Leir

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