Hurrah, we've found an asteroid that might kill us all in 2032

2013 TV135 is meant to be a 410m space rock of death, but it's OK - there's a 99.998% chance it'll miss us.

Doomsayers, rejoice! Ukrainian astronomers have discovered Earth's new most dangerous space threat - a 410m-wide asteroid that will skim through our region of space twice between on 2032 and 2047.

To keep track of dangerous so-called Near-Earth Objects (or NEOs) there's a standardised ranking system known as the Torino scale. Zero means something isn't a threat, ten means a definite impact is expected. 2013 TV135 - as this terrifying new asteroid has been dubbed - has been bumped up to a whopping one out of ten, making it the joint-most dangerous threat to Earth that we know of. The other asteroid ranked at a danger level of one out of ten (as you can see on Nasa's Near-Earth Object Program site) is 2007 VK184. That one will pass near to Earth four times between 2048 and 2057.

However, before you start shopping for bomb shelters, it's always worth putting discoveries like this in context, especially since the Chelyabinsk meteor last year. That really was a scary event, a once-in-a-few-decades object that, this time, exploded over a heavily-populated area instead of the more usual oceans, deserts and other empty parts of this world where we don't notice.

That meteor is estimated to have been between 17 and 20 metres in diameter, and weighed about 10,000 tonnes. Compared to that, 410 metres sounds absolutely massive, and if it is that big - there's every chance that further readings will reduce that - it will post a serious risk to humanity's existence.

But, consider that its current chance of hitting us is somewhere in the region of one in 63,000. That's not very good. 2007 VK184 has a better shot of of an impact, at one in 1,750, but those are still, quite literally, astronomical odds.

It's very similar to the one in roughly 2,000 chance that the 5km-wide comet ISON had of hitting Mars (as estimated earlier this year), a possibility that left some scientists very excited. The chance to see an enormous bit of ice and rock smash into another planet - one that we have cameras and sensors trained on thanks to rovers and satellites - would have been extremely useful to observe. Even if it missed, a close pass by a comet that big should have looked pretty spectacular, and scientists expected ISON to put on quite a glorious show.

In the end, though, this is what ISON looked like:

See that white speck in the middle of those panels? That's ISON, as it flew past Mars this month. One of the most anticipated comets in years turned out to brighten a lot less than we thought, and the result was, well, that. A speck.

This is all to show that predicting asteroids and comets is a tricky business, but it's something we're getting a lot better at. We tend to spot the really big ones a long way in advance, and the organisations around the world which work to track them - which, along with Nasa, includes everything from the European Space Agency's Gaia mission to the work of the non-profit B612 Foundation and its Sentinel project - are pretty sure that we won't get caught out by anything like the asteroid that is presumed to have killed off the dinosaurs.

The problem is the smaller ones, the ones smaller than 100m. Those ones can knock out cities and towns out of nowhere (see: Chelyabinsk), and we think there are probably around 4,700 of those still out there that we haven't found. Compared to that risk, 2013 TV135 is almost small-fry - and it's a good sign that we've found it so early.

 

The impact site of last year's Chelyabinsk meteor. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Warren K Leffler at Wikimedia Commons
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"She wore a USB cord instead of a necklace": whatever happened to Cyberfeminism?

The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both cyber-positive and sex-positive.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I met someone else called Joanna Walsh. The fact that this is also my name drew me to study her closely. We were about the same age. She worked in the tech side of the arts world, with which I was also connected via a loose network of zines, "comix" and journals. Instead of a necklace, she wore a USB cord. She knew how to program. She was a cyberfeminist. 

Cyberfeminism had been a word since 1991, coined separately by the British philosopher Sadie Plant (once profiled painfully in the Independent on Sunday as the “IT girl for the 21st Century”) who was then running the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit with fellow philosopher Nick Land, and by the Australian art collective VNS Matrix

In September 1997, the First Cyberfeminist International meet-up took palce in Germany, and the artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that its members "agreed not to define the term" cyberfeminist, but to understand it through negative. As a result, the Old Boys Network, a cyerfeminist alliance founded at the event, wrote “100 Anti-Theses” in languages from Croatian to Indonesian. The theses defined cyberfeminism by what it is not: “cyberfeminisme n'est pas une pipe… cyberfeminism is not post-modern… cyberfeminismo no es rock'n’roll” - as a gap, a lack, but also posited this newly-available "cyber" space as a place into which bodies could be projected, and within which they could be remade.

Nineties cyberfeminism drew heavily on contemporary feminist postmodernist theory, including the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigary. As with any radical movement concerned with identity politics, there was a tension between repurposing or remixing stereotypes and the near-impossible task of destroying them and creating new archetypes. The work of trans cyberfeminist Sandy Stone is indicative of much of the movement’s gender-fluid stance: the Old Boys Network's founding aim was to “contribute[s] to the critical discourse on new media, especially gender-specific aspects,” by members who self-select “if you call yourself a woman.” 

"A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” by VNS Matrix.

As Sadie Plant explains in her book Zeros and Ones—and as Elena Ferrante demonstrates through her (anti?) heroine Lila in the Neapolitan novels, who is an early coder — computing was once considered “women’s work’”. Like Plant, MIT Professor and digital theorist Sherry Turkle described women as digital natives, particularly suited to its “bricolage” methods. The VNS Matrix art collective, by contrast, saw women as biological infiltrators of “Big Daddy Mainframe”. 

Like other strands of 1990s feminism, whether they were prefixed with “Riot” or “Spice”, Cyberfeminism was “girl”-oriented. Zines were called gURL, and Geek Girl, and in 1995 Linda Dement made a “Cyberflesh Girlmonster”. The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both “cyber-positive” and “sex-positive”. Cyberfeminism’s enthusiasm, its refusal to self-define, could be exhausting, but is it exhausted? The OBN's calendar takes us up to 2003, the function feminism timeline to 2005. In 2012 a reassessment of the movement titled Cyberfeminism 2.0, was published. What happened in the interim?

What happened is, we all became users. The internet is so embedded in our lives as to make the prefix “cyber” tautologous as “road traffic” or “free gift”, but use of a medium implies neither expertise or control. Not only have women become notoriously scarce in programming, but, as technology becomes more complex, everyone is losing access to the basic means of production. JR Carpenter, a digital artist who continues to make “handmade” web pages, expands on Lori Emerson’s 2014 Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound:

“‘The iPad works because users can’t know how it works.’ Reading the web on an iPhone, iPad, or similar device, readers do not have the option of viewing the page source. The iPad provides consumers with access to materials created by others, but cannot easily be used as a tool in the handcrafting of new materials.”

As internet consumers we are all feminised, invited to complete ourselves through purchase: “The boundary between empowerment/subjectivity/agency and market-driven formation of self, which in fact has never been clear, becomes more nebulous,” wrote Radhika Gajjala’s and Yeon Ju Oh in their introduction to Cyberfeminism 2.0. “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” declared Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto, published in 1991, Cyberfeminism’s year zero. But who are our cyborgs now? Default-female Siri and her cohort of servers with a smile? The internet’s “Mechanical Turks’”, mostly women in low-pay jobs whose hand-input is disguised as technology? 

The net can be an echo chamber of reinforced thought as, from Twitter to porn sites, users seek out communities that reflect their offline opinions. “Networked knowledge,” wrote David Weinberger  in a recent essay in the LARB, “is inextricable from its social context,” and can even offer a new, improved platform for offline prejudice. In April, the Guardian catalogued what everyone already knew: that’s it’s primarily their women (followed by non-white) correspondents whose work attracts trolling, abuse and threats.

An unusual feature of Cyberfeminism was how quickly it began to bemoan its own demise. Gashgirl/Doll Yoko/Francesca da Rimini of VNS Matrix wrote as early as 1997:

“after 6 years of surfen sibapussy g-slime as one of the vns matrix pussy posse i don't feel particularly inspired to comment anymore on cyberfeminism/s [if u dont have nothing new to say don't repeat yrself]… cept to say that as far as i rememba things vns matrix never *seriously* wanted to rule the world ..or women to dominate the net...necessarily.... .. but, as artists, we were serious bout usin strategies like irony 'n inversion of cultural stereotypes to raise some of the many issues around women and technology.”

As such, though the internet has been of inestimable benefit as a platform and network for feminist activists (at least those who can access the equipment), “online feminism” is not absolutely identifiable with Cyberfeminism. 

Like Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary, cyberfeminism never did "tell you what I want, what I really really want" but, during a brief window of blue-sky thinking as to what the net could be, artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that “simply attaching the happy 'cyber' hype to the term feminism in the early 90s opened up immense potential. The synonym for an unreflective, euphoric understanding of new technologies, which 'cyber' definitely is, breathed new life into the debates around gender and feminism.”

Now, Cyberfeminism remains live because rejection of definition is its founding feature. Many 90s cyberfeminist groups and artists are still practicing, including Subrosa, Studio XX, and forums on OBN and elsewhere remain active. Members of the CCRU and VNS Matrix can be found working in academia and the arts, and contemporary theorists include Professor Radhika Gajjala who writes particularly on "subaltern" and south Asian "Cyberselves".“Cyberfeminism does not express itself in single, individual approaches but in the differences and spaces in between,” writes Sollfrank. “All continue to write the story.”

But now, when I use Google to search for “Joanna Walsh”, even in conjunction with institutions with which we were both linked, the only name I find is my own. 

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here