Chicken Little would do well to duck and consider taking cover if he were a Martian.

The little green men should definitely watch out and possibly follow his lead. The sky may not be falling, but an asteroid is!

Last week brought the news of a football-field-sized asteroid making a beeline for the equator of Mars. The odds are good that it will hit.

Astronomers discovered asteroid 2007WDS in November and shortly after noted that it is on a collision course with Mars. Original odds put a direct hit at 1-in-350 chance, but that chance was increased to 1-in-35 and now to a 1-in-7 chance. Gentlemen, place your bets.

Even though the sky won’t fall, if the asteroid does hit, it will cause a significant dust cloud that will even be visible from Earth (with a telescope.) Speed would be to blame for the planetary powder puff: the asteroid is moving at about 27,900 miles per hour.

Don’t take a gamble on the damage that this asteroid may cause: it will be a lose-lose situation. The last time an asteroid of this magnitude hit our planet it did some serious damage. In 1908, the Tunguska explosion in Central Siberia, which was a suspected asteroid hit, left complete destruction in its wake. The explosion had the power of 10 to 20 megatons of TNT — a thousand times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Tunguska blast flattened 500,000 acres and wiped out almost 60 million trees. It was an earthly Big Bang.

Chances are the incoming asteroid will be a miss. That is usually the case with space debris, but astronomers are following this one closely. And if it does hit, we may have some great photos of the impact since, as luck would have it, NASA’s rover Opportunity is exploring nearby. Scientists don’t fear for the robot’s safety since it is outside of the expected asteroid impact zone.

Asteroids are rocky old fragments that were left over from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. The word asteroid is a derivation of a Greek word meaning star-like. These celestial nuggets are also called minor planets.

There are millions of asteroids of varying sizes orbiting the sun elliptically, most of which are found in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. While there are many asteroids, their total mass is less than the mass of Earth’s moon. Occasionally one of these can get knocked out of orbit by gravity and become a planet-bound projectile—thus the impending game of Martian Roulette.

Stay tuned: scientists expect that if the asteroid does score a hit on Mars, the most likely date for the impact is Jan. 30. That still gives you some time to watch the odds and consider a call to your bookie.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.