We like to remain optimistic here at GFR. We like to think that, in spite of all the challenges facing our species, we will ultimately overcome those obstacles and find a way forward, together, even if that path is messy and full of false starts. But if we are doomed to be wiped out before we manage to leave the cradle, one of the most likely doomsday threats is a rogue asteroid smacking into our planet. It’s a very real threat, and there’s no telling whether we would be able to do anything about it even if we got plenty of advance warning. So, you can understand why some people might have been a little upset earlier this week when CNN published a story claiming that we had a 50% chance of being hit by a potentially civilization-ending asteroid in 2041. On March 35, 2041, to be precise.
No, that date is not a typo. Or at least not an accidental one. The story was brought to us by CNN’s user-generated “iReport” program, which allows users to post, well, apparently anything they damn well please. The asteroid story, headlined “Giant asteroid possibly on collision course with Earth,” was posted by user Marcus575, a name that’s up there with Edward R. Murrow when it comes to journalistic respectability. And there the story stayed, on CNN, for nearly 24 hours, before somebody noticed and said, “Say, that doesn’t sound right.” To be fair, there were no clear red flags that the story might be bogus, other than, you know, common sense or a quick check of any other news organization. Or the March 35 date. Or the fact that Marcus575 had, as you can see below, given the story such helpful tags as “beiber” [sic] and “cyrus.” Now, if the story concerned an asteroid that was about to hit Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, that would have been worthy of CNN’s homepage…
According to Salon, the asteroid hoax story was shared on Facebook at least 24,000 times during the 24-hour period it was on CNN’s site, and earned a quarter of a million views. Here’s the text of the story, which, again, remained on CNN for nearly a freaking day:
If astronomers are right, all life on this planet could be extinguished in less than 30 years from now. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have detected a large object the size of Manhattan possibly on a collision course with Earth. Using their Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), the 10-mile wide object was found approximately 51 million miles from Earth. Scientists believe that during a close encounter with Mars, the asteroid was nudged slightly off its usual orbit and may currently be on a high speed collision course with our fragile planet.
The asteroid is calculated to have a potentially lethal encounter with the Earth on March 35, 2041. Astronomers have placed the odds of an impact at 1 in 2.04, which is by far the most unprecedented risk ever faced to humanity, let alone from asteroids. Such an impact could potentially end civilization as we know it.
More information will be posted here as the story develops…
The “more information” eventually came when somebody at NASA confirmed that, no, we don’t have a 1 in 2 chance of getting pancaked by a space rock in a little under 30 years. CNN has since pulled the story down and replaced it with the following message:
So, the good news is that the planet is not, so far as we know, doomed. CNN’s credibility, however, may still be a smoking hole in the ground come 2141.
Header image courtesy of NASA