Asteroid-apocalypse experts were struck by a shower of eggs last week, as they prepared to sound the alarm over an incoming space boulder potentially capable of wiping out life on Earth - only to find that the object was a well-known European space probe on a planned flyby.
The Minor Planet Centre (MPC) - which is to asteroids what the Cheyenne Mountain command bunker was to Russian missiles - raised the alarm last week. The MPC passed the word among astronomers that a deadly celestial object, designated 2007 VN84, would pass within 5,600km of Earth, and asked for tracking information.
That's less than half the Earth's diameter, or to put it another way some of the human race would have been closer to the murderous meteor than to the Earth's core. Only a tiny error in the trajectory of the presumed hurtling colossal space boulder could have seen it blasting the world to smithereens - or at the very least wiping out civilisation, devastating the ecosystem, giving rise to a lot of articles using the phrase "eerily reminiscent", etc. Some kind of plan to pepper 2007 VN84 with nuclear bombs and/or strangely-necessary oil barons played by Bruce Willis would probably have been necessary.
Apparently Bruce Willis had not yet been placed on alert - though a UK backup plan involving Patrick Moore was well under way, according to Metro - when a Russian astronomer piped up.
Muscovite skywatcher Denis Denisenko revealed that the menacing meteor was in fact a
European Union space battleship bent on world domination the European Space Agency Rosetta probe, passing close to Earth for a long-planned gravity-assist "slingshot" manoeuvre.
The MPC meteor watch chiefs were not amused, issuing the following statement, annotated by the Reg.
Denis Denisenko suggested that the object designated 2007 VN84... might be the Rosetta spacecraft. Our investigation of this possibility... shows that this suggestion is indeed correct [god dammit]... This incident... highlights the [god damned] deplorable state of... information on distant artificial objects... data is not always available for the timespans needed. A single source for information on all distant artificial objects would be very desirable. [You Europeans think you're so goddam funny. Well, you wait 'til a real one comes. Who'll be laughing then, huh, chuckleheads? Us, that's who.]
Patrick Moore, having apparently checked matters out personally, seemed reluctant to commit himself. He told Metro: "It certainly wasn't an asteroid. And the last comet to hit us was about 65 million years ago, when the theory is it wiped out the dinosaurs." ®