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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Aired September 2, 2003 - 20:55   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: In the end, heroes in the movie "Armageddon" were able to save the Earth from a killer asteroid, but what would happen in real life? We might just found out. British Astronomers say a giant asteroid known as 2003QQ47 could hit the Earth in 2014. You're looking at a simulation of the asteroid's possibly trajectory. Now I know plenty of you might be interested in this story, far and away it got the most hits today on CNN.com. But should we be worried? I am joined now by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He's the director of the Hayden Planetarium here in New York. Always good to see you.
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, ASTROPHYSICIST: Good to be back.

ZAHN: What, me worried? Are you scared?

TYSON: Well, I think it's moments like this that we should consider shots across our bow. It's not this single asteroid that puts us at risk. There are thousands of asteroids whose orbit in the Solar System crosses that of Earth. And we have a little acronym for them, NEOs, near Earth objects. And our biggest goal is to try to catalogue them, so we know in advance if one is going to put us at risk.

ZAHN: So how real is the threat of any of these NEOs hitting Earth in a major way that could possibly have huge consequences?

TYSON: Huge, huge consequences.

ZAHN: If there's a direct hit, what would happen?

TYSON: Oh, it's bad, it would be a bad day on Earth. This particular asteroid is about three-quarters of a mile in diameter. That's not big enough to render humans extinct. But it would completely destroy the infrastructure of any landmass that it hit. So it would be very bad for the culture of any country that it happened to hit, or the coastal regions, that could experience a...

ZAHN: So what could it, potentially typhoons and...

(CROSSTALK)

TYSON: Yes, you could get tsunamis that could take out coastal cities if it lands close to a continental shelf. But the chances of it hitting are about one in a million.

ZAHN: Oh, well, good. That's making me feel a little bit better.

TYSON: That's a good sign. That's a good sign.

ZAHN: But you're cataloging this very closely. And we talked a little bit about the trajectory of what we think this asteroid is. Describe to us geographically where we think it will go, and where it might hit.

TYSON: Well, there are tens of thousands of asteroids orbiting safely out in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And there is a subset of them that have orbits that come close to Earth. And these NEOs -- by the way, we've been hit in the past. This one probably won't hit us. But it's not just an imagination, that we are at risk here on Earth.

ZAHN: And you've brought evidence of that?

TYSON: I've got evidence of one. This is a meteorite. It's very heavy.

ZAHN: You're not kidding. This is very dense.

TYSON: This is part of the meteorite that made the famous crater in Arizona, meteor crater, formerly known as Barringer (ph) crater. And that one happens to be made of iron. Iron asteroids stay together in one piece all the way through Earth's atmosphere. And they leave big craters.

But there are other kinds that might break up in the atmosphere and leave an air blast and render whole regions of Earth ablaze by the deposit of energy, right spontaneously into the atmosphere.

ZAHN: You tend to associate with people who care a lot about these matters. What does it say to you that this kind of story got the most hits on CNN.com? There's a tremendous degree of interest in it.

TYSON: Yes, well, of course. Survival matters. And to the extent that media pays attention to these kinds of risks. By the way, they are low probability, high consequence events.

ZAHN: Right. So how do you prepare for them?

TYSON: Well...

ZAHN: It's not like you can go out and buy a suit that's going to protect you...

(CROSSTALK)

TYSON: ... swat you like a bug if that hits you. What you need is a healthy space program, because the day is going to come, if we find one with our name on it, we want to go up and at least nudge it out of harm's way. That will take technology. That will take time. There is only a couple of dozen people in the world today who are monitoring the sky for these asteroids. That's not enough, as far as I am concerned.

ZAHN: Well, you bring along the best show-and-tell items tonight. A piece of an asteroid...

(CROSSTALK)

TYSON: The Mars meteorite.

ZAHN: The Mars meteorite. Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, thank you for your insights.

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