But is it good news or bad?
In January, the Center for Mid-Space Study, an institute staffed by members of the American, British, and Indian scientific communities, first noticed the asteroid 710768 (2002 OZ9), which they dubbed “Tiddlywink” for its flat, round shape. At that time, it was heading straight for Earth.
“It might have missed,” said Megnahd Sarabhi, a senior researcher at the Center, “but there was also a statistically non-insignificant chance of a hit, and that would have been catastrophic.”
The scientists scrambled to put a plan in place. “We thought about everything,” said Felicity Birtwistle, another senior researcher. “Tunneling underground, taking shuttles to other planets, even a huge satellite that would hypnotize everyone on earth into believing that everything was fine until the Big Bam. But our funding was slow to come, mostly as a result of coronavirus.”
Last week, those scientists recalculated, expecting the worst. But they got the best instead: now it seems that Tiddlywinks is heading away from the earth, back out into open space.
“We were relieved, obviously,” said Aaron Johnson, a third researcher, “but also confused. It made no sense.”
IT JUST DIDN’T WANT TO
As it turns out, 710768 (2002 OZ9)—or Tiddlywink, if you’d prefer—is not your run-of-the-mill asteroid. For one thing, it’s larger than average, about five miles across rather than the mile or two of most.
For another, it’s not just a hunk of rock, but a rare example of what astronomers call “sentient matter.” In other words, it doesn’t just fly through space, but it thinks, and that means it can alter its course and even explain why.
“It took us a while to realize that the electromagnetic pings and bleeps coming from Tiddlywinks were a form of speech,” said Sarabhi.
“It took you a while,” said Birtiwstle. “I was saying that from the beginning.”
“Let’s not start squabbling again,” said Johnson.
“Oh, am I squabbling?” said Birwitsle. “I thought I was just being spirited. Isn’t that what you called it when we were in bed last night?”
“Come on,” said Sarabhi. “Do you have to bring that up?”
“Does it make you jealous?” said Birtwistle. “Maybe you should have been a little more interested when we were married, Megnahd.”
“This is absurd,” said Johnson. “We’re professionals. We’re entrusted with an important responsibility.”
“Sometimes,” said Sarabhi, “I kind of wish the asteroid hadn’t turned around. There aren’t three more comforting words in the English language than ‘Brace for Impact.’”
“That’s what he said,” said Birtwistle.
FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH
The team used advanced translation techniques to decode the asteroid’s pings and bleeps, and what they found surprised them.
“Was headed straight for Earth,” Tiddlywink’s dispatch read, “but decided not to do it. It would have resulted in wholesale destruction, of course, but it seems that all of you are doing quite well in the destruction business all on your own. I think I’m going to find a planet where the cataclysm I’ll cause will really have an impact if you’ll pardon the pun.”
The scientists at the Center confessed that they hadn’t yet read the message. “We’ve had our hands full,” said Birtwistle.
“You’ve had your hands full,” said Sarabhi.
“Grow up,” said Birtwistle.
“I’m just going to go have a drink on my own,” said Johnson. “Maybe two.”