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Nemesis
Somewhere out there, there is a comet with our name on it. Right now it’s hanging out in the Oort cloud, far beyond Pluto, where it’s hobnobbing with the billions of other comets. The time will come, however, when complex gravitational forces will nudge the rocky ice ball out of its position. It will then begin, as so many of its companions have, its long, curving trajectory toward the sun — except that this one will be heading directly at planet earth.

This should be a cause for concern. The last time something really big hit the earth, all the dinosaurs died. When the next big thing hits, some other dominant, pain-in-the-ass creatures will probably disappear. In case you’re wondering, that’ll be us, dude.

The last such collision, as it is generally agreed, occurred 60 million years ago when an asteroid smacked into the Yucatan. It kicked up so much crud that the sun was blotted out for years. That was long enough to lop off the top of the food chain and set up the steady rise of the hairless apes to the top spot. And now here we sit — a moving target, no doubt, but you can count on the universe to keep trying to knock us off our perch.

Asteroid strikes like the one that offed the dinos are more common than comets, of course, but getting whacked by a comet is a whole other level of disaster. The Yucatan asteroid, assuming it was typical, probably hit Earth traveling about 40,000 miles per hour. A comet would likely be going around 120,000 m.p.h. If you’re a bacterium buried deep in the earth’s crust you might walk away from such a collision without a scratch. The rest of us are toast.

The thought of such a cataclysmic event might be too horrible for you to imagine, but wait around for a year and a half and you may not have to imagine it. October 19, 2014 — that’s when comet C/2013 A1 passes directly through Mars’ orbit and may (or may not) clobber the red planet. If it hits, we’ll all have an example of the awful violence of the cosmos to study and ponder. The music of the spheres will be transformed for a time into a heavy metal rock concert.

We were given a similar opportunity in 1993 when Comet Shoemaker-Levy (the celestial body formerly known as comet D/1993 F2) collided with Jupiter. That was certainly a violent event, but it’s hard to identify with the damage done to a gas giant like Jupiter. Astronomers tell us that the scars left by the impact were truly horrendous, but the concept of damage to a huge ball of hydrogen was somewhat difficult to grasp. Mars is a different story. It’s somewhat smaller than Earth but just as solid. What’s more, it’s right next door; we’d have the best seats in the house.

I have mixed feelings about this hypothetical encounter. For starters, I have nothing against Mars. Some astronomers point to evidence that it may, in fact, have been the source of life on Earth. Under their theory, bits of life on Mars were dislodged by another cosmic impact long ago and spattered across the surface of this planet; we are the descendants of those splatters. In a way, then, Mars is home, and I’d hate to see anything bad happen to it. There is also a possibility that some form of life still exists there, and I don’t wish any harm to befall any of my relatives, no matter how distant.

Still, it would be a hell of a show. If you like explosions, you’d love the mayhem of this interplanetary train wreck. Waves of destruction and chaos would spread across the Martian globe, changing the face of the planet forever. Some think the climate will become warmer. Water could flow again. It might even become habitable.

All fantasy, of course, but we can be sure of this: some very big changes would come to our neighbor, and the event would provide one big celestial object lesson about what could happen to us once the comet with our name on it finally comes calling. Maybe the sight of it would shock us into a heightened awareness of how wondrous and precious and fragile our own planet is. Perhaps we’d be moved to change the trajectory of our lives here and stop ourselves from poisoning our own nest. At the very least, it might persuade us to work on our defenses against a similar cataclysm. The destruction of Mars, then, might help save the earth, and that would be a good thing.

In the end, though, I don’t want any of this to happen. I want comet C/2013 A1 to sail safely past Mars, crack the whip around Sol, and head back to the Oort cloud. I want Earth to plod on without needing an object lesson and simply do the right thing because it makes sense. I want the music of the spheres to play sweetly on, uninterrupted by the awful cacophony of violent, wrenching change. I want to be left alone and to live in peace.

The universe, I know, has other ideas. It has comets with my name on them, and asteroids, and earthquakes, and tornadoes, and Land Rovers driven by texting teens. If it isn’t one thing, it’s a whole bunch of things. No matter what happens to Mars, I’m sticking with the same game plan: keep my head down, my eyes open, and try not to do anything stupid.

Please Note: Tim Eagan will read your comments but he is currently not publishing them.

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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon