Partner and I saw something interesting the other night. A near-earth asteroid, Apophis, was making a near approach to Earth, and we watched it in real time, on a British website called, which operates a powerful telescope in the Canary Islands off Africa.

The images were peaceful enough: a tiny bright spot moving slowly against a background of stars.

Apophis will not trouble us this time; it’s too far away.

But Apophis is coming back. It will make another near-Earth approach in 2029, and again in 2036. There is a vanishingly small chance that, in 2036, Apophis will actually hit the Earth.

If it does, it would not be quite as bad as the dinosaur-killing asteroid that hit Earth sixty million years ago. It would be very bad, however.

But, as I said, the chances are very small.

Makes you feel uncertain, doesn’t it?

I don’t much care. In 2036, I’ll be 79 years old, if I’m not already dead.

But it makes me think of all the odd things that can happen, and the random horrible accidents that can really ruin your day.

And I used to like the asteroids.  I thought of them as a remote peaceful place, a planetary archipelago, kind of like the British West Indies.

I prefer them that way.

Here’s Diane Ackerman’s poem from the 1970s:

We imagine them


cheek to jowl,

these driftrocks

of cosmic ash

thousandfold afloat

between Jupiter and Mars.





Names to conjure with,

Dakotan black hills,

A light-opera

Staged on a barrier reef.

And swarm they may have,

Crumbly as blue-cheese,

That ur-moment

when the solar system

broke wind.

But now

they lumber

so wide apart

from each

to its neighbor’s


slant millions

and millions

of watertight miles.

Only in the longest view

do they graze

like one herd

on a breathless tundra.

The stars last weekend


I don’t know if you were out after dark last weekend, or looked out a west-facing window.  If not, you missed quite a show.  The very young crescent moon, Venus, and Jupiter were all together in the western sky shortly after sunset.  On Friday it was (top to bottom) Jupiter-Venus-moon, in a long curving line; then, on Saturday night, the moon and Venus were making out, right next to each other, with Jupiter looking on from above; Sunday evening, it was moon and Jupiter, with Venus glaring down below; on Monday, another long curve, top to bottom Moon-Jupiter-Venus.  (Mercury was supposedly down there somewhere, but, as I’ve noted before, I am evidently destined never to see Mercury.)



It was beautiful, and scary, and brilliant.  I actually took pictures of it, and if you’ve ever tried to take pictures of the moon or stars, you’ll know that the photos usually don’t turn out.  You can see in the photo above how bright the conjunction was, and how remarkably beautiful.



It’s a cosmic optical illusion.  The moon is only a quarter of a million miles away. Venus is – what? – maybe thirty million miles away.  Jupiter is hundreds of millions of miles away.  But they all happened to be in the same line of sight at the same time .



We were watching a game of cosmic Skee-Ball.  All these planets and moons whizzing around in our line of sight!  Beautiful, eerie, mysterious.



From Diane Ackerman’s book “The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral,” the last few lines of “Asteroids”:



But now

                        They lumber

So wide apart

From each

To its neighbor’s


                                                                        Slant millions

                        And millions

                        Of watertight miles.

                                                            Only in the longest view

Do they graze

            Like one herd

                                                On a breathless tundra.


%d bloggers like this: