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Heeeere's Toutatis!

September 29, 2004

Contrary to some global news reports, all life on this planet will not be extinguished today in a collision with a 50-billion-ton primordial space rock the size of a town. This is good news because now another event of galactic significance, the late-night TV transition from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien, can proceed on its solar schedule for 2009.

So strong is the gravitational pull of "The Tonight Show," which has drawn an estimated $230 million annually into NBC's orbit, the network is planning 60 months ahead. In the time before Leno's retirement and O'Brien's ascension to the top-rated late-night chair, the Earth will travel around the sun five full times at 18 miles every second. That provides time for the traditionally sedate "Tonight Show" audience to die off or adapt to the edgier comedy of O'Brien's later insomniacs. Or vice versa.

If you're reading this, chances are good the behemoth asteroid, 4179 Toutatis, narrowly missed us just before dawn. The shape of an unshelled peanut about 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, Toutatis has been tumbling through space since The Beginning, 4.5 billion years ago. It's about one-eighth the size of the asteroid that some think erased the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Nobody noticed Toutatis' last close passage in 1353 because, well, nobody noticed it until 1989.

If you're not reading this, you may have felt a noticeable jolt about 5:37 this morning and sensed an approaching Armageddon. The good news: It wasn't an earthquake. The bad news: It was the sudden arrival of a very large chunk of nickel and iron at 22,000 miles an hour. Close your windows soon because it's going to be even hazier around here for a few centuries.

Because of the damage potential and there being no known asteroid defense except Bruce Willis, scientists are busy tracking everything over half a mile wide that we might run into someday. Of 91,000 known asteroids, they've identified more than 800. Unfortunately, hundreds more are hurtling this way unseen.

Toutatis was predicted to zip by 962,000 miles from Earth, which is even farther than Barstow on hot holiday Fridays. However, in space that's a mere whisker. The asteroid's next near miss is in 2562, when it will pass as close as the moon. By that time, Caltrans will have completed several more useless studies of the 101, and NBC, then owned by El Pollo Loco, will be naming another "Tonight Show" host.

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