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Tuesday, 4 January, 2000, 15:50 GMT
The end is nigh, again

Stone me! An asteroid strike is the first scare story of the century

Three wise men have been gathered to decide how best to avert an asteroid tragedy which threatens to wipe out all civilisation - never has the Blair government devised a policy move with such an epic tone.

Days into 2000, airliners have stayed aloft and lottery ticket machines still churn, allaying fears that the millennium bug would propel us back to the dark ages of 1900.

Disaster lottery: It could be you
The week has also seen the departure of the last peace protesters camped outside the former nuclear missile base at Greenham Common.

Before the announcement that a taskforce was being set up to look into the dangers posed by an asteroid striking the Earth, it was looking like we in the UK had nothing special to worry about in the 21st Century.

Nuclear holocaust was one of our overriding fears before 1989, with even the most optimistic souls occasionally doubting the sanity, or humanity, of those with their fingers on the button.

The millennium Bug caused just as many sleepless nights, particularly with its nail-biting countdown to the High Noon-esque zero hour of 0000 GMT on New Year's Day.

Fire and brimstone

While nuclear destruction would be due to the folly of a few and the bug meltdown the result of the short-sightedness of programmers - annihilation at the hands of a giant space rock has a decidedly biblical quality.

However distant the prospect of a deadly asteroid strike - supposedly it's 750 times more likely than your chances of winning the lottery, so no worries there - it does have that ring of final retribution.

Ebola outbreaks in the 1990s prompted plague fears
This drama has not been lost on Hollywood, robbed of its Russki villains. Following a brief dalliance with pestilence in the Ebola-inspired film Outbreak, the studios have bet the farm on killer asteroids.

Movies about killer rocks, of course, pre-date the end of the Cold War. But the wonky special effects of such flops as 1979's Meteor, starring Sean Connery and Natalie Wood, precluded any real thoughts of global destruction.

Digital jiggery-pokery in 1998's twin offerings Deep Impact and the more bluntly-titled Armageddon, gave us a believable picture of what devastation an asteroid could do to our planet.

Where there's a Willis...

Apart from awakening us to this new apocalyptic danger, the films also proposed some fairly straightforward solutions.

Gainfully employing existing "Star Wars" anti-missile satellites is soon revealed to be no match for the hands-on approach.

Movie special effects have a 'deep impact'
Landing a crew of US and Russian astronauts on the rock, or a bunch of semi-trained navvies under Bruce Willis in Armageddon's case, is therefore endorsed as far and away the best option.

Should their nuclear demolition job on the asteroid fail to do the trick, Deep Impact advises us to dig - with the great, the good and the lucky given entry to underground shelters.

While it's doubtful Mr Blair's asteroid taskforce will suggest sending a manned mission - even one including Bruce Willis - to tackle a "global killer", it will presumably call for British action should one hove into view.

In on the act

It may be that the UK is nettled by its constant exclusion from Hollywood disaster films, not to mention the howls of anger when World War Two epic Saving Private Ryan ignored British participation in the conflict.

In the movies, Russia is usually America's partner of choice - overcoming political differences for the greater good.

Mr Blair may be hoping that with Russia kept busy stopping its Mir space station crashing unexpectedly into the planet, the UK may be allowed to share the laurels with the United States.

Armageddon: 'Get me to a mineshaft!'
Fighting off an intergalactic menace may also prove the perfect test for the British know-how and bottled millennial optimism responsible for the Dome and the... er, river of fire.

Should an asteroid make it through unscathed, sadly the UK doesn't boast the number of safe holes in the ground it once did.

When coal was king the country was literally peppered with deep shafts. We may have to rely on the benevolence of other mining nations.

Not all of humanity can be accommodated underground, Deep Impact used a lottery to allocate places - and if there's one thing the UK can run it's a lottery.

Your chances of picking a lucky, lifesaving ticket? Probably less than being hit by an asteroid.
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See also:
04 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
Saving the world from asteroids
04 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Taskforce tackles asteroid threat
18 Nov 99 |  UK
Fiery end for dinosaurs?
19 May 98 |  World
Have disaster movies had their day?

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