Don’t Look Up is a satire that imagines what modern society’s reaction would be to an Earth-killing asteroid that generated a lot of acclaim – and backlash – since it came out last year. But what if that did happen? What are our actual plans to deal with a major asteroid strike?
Last year, the movie Don’t Look Up premiered on Netflix to huge critical and audience acclaim. And just a few weeks ago, it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Of course now there’s a bit of a backlash against it because I guess it was a little too popular.
But if you’ve been living under a rock or didn’t see the Oscars, the movie is about a team of astronomers who discover an Earth-killing asteroid and the frustrations they have getting the rest of the world to take it seriously.
It’s an obvious satire of climate change and the recent pandemic that basically points a finger at the way we’ve reacted so far to a long-term existential threat and says, what if we acted like that with something much more near-term? How bizarre would that be?
For me anyway, I thought it did that brilliantly in fact some of it was a little too close to home for me, but like I said, there has been a bit of a backlash for being a little too on-the-nose and self-congratulatory, so no, it didn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars. And nothing else interesting happened that night.
But the whole thing got me thinking about asteroid strikes, which are a real threat. And it got me wondering… What exactly is our plan if a Don’t Look Up scenario were to occur?
You might be surprised to hear this but every day, our planet receives visitors from outer space. I’m not talking about Grays or Zeta Reticulans… Although, who knows?
No, I’m talking about meteors, and there’s a lot more of them that hit the Earth than you might think.
In fact, Earth is constantly attracting material from outer space. This is mind-blowing to me, 100 tons of material enters Earth’s atmosphere every day. 100 tons! Most of it burns up in the atmosphere but every day 17 meteors make it to the surface. meteoroid is the more general term, but any object burning in the atmosphere is a meteor
Actually that’s not true. If it reaches the surface, it’s a meteorite.
Yeah, we tend to use the word meteor to describe small rocks in space but technically a small rock like this flying around in space is a meteoroid.
Once it enters the atmosphere and burns up, that streak across the sky, the shooting star, that’s actually a meteor. And then once it hits the ground, it’s a meteorite.
Think of it like other minerals you might find on the ground like calcite, anthracite… meteorite.
And an asteroid is bigger than a meteoroid. It’s more like a planetoid; tiny planet.
But yeah, somewhere on Earth every day 17 of these things fall from the sky. Now, most of the Earth’s surface is water so most of them land in the drink but every once in a while, one hits land. And every once in a long while… They can do some damage.
Meteor Crater, AZ
Last year, 2021, I visited the Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona. Also known as Barringer Crater, it’s nearly a mile wide and 550 feet deep, and it was created by a meteor impact some 50,000 years ago.
The meteor weighed hundreds of thousands of tons and released something like 9-10 megatons of TNT.
Which is roughly the same energy released by the Tonga volcano in January. The one that did this.
And honestly, it’s pretty mind-blowing to see in person. Especially the part where you start seeing giant out-of-place rocks and boulders strewn all over the place for dozens of miles before you get there.
And this… wasn’t even that noteworthy as impacts go.
Keep in mind this is meteor crater. It was made by a meteor. Asteroids are bigger.
According to NASA, a meteor the size of a football field hits every 2000 years or so. Asteroids large enough to cause extinctions and end civilizations come along “every few million years.”
Some of these are comets but most of the largest impacts we know about have been from asteroids.
The most famous one, of course, is the one that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago and created the Chicxulub crater in Mexico.
Luckily impacts on that scale are extremely rare. In fact, only two craters on Earth rival Chicxulub for size and they’re both around 2 billion years old.
So it’s incredibly unlikely another planet-killing impact will happen in our lifetimes. I mean… If our entire species survives to see the next one, it’ll be pretty impressive.
But an impact doesn’t have to be a planet killer to ruin your day
Chelyabinsk and Tunguska
In 2013, a meteor that fell over Chelyabinsk, Russia injured 1419 people
7200 buildings were damaged over an area of tens of kilometers, not by pieces of the meteor landing on it but from the shock wave when it exploded in mid-air.
In 1908, a much larger explosion devastated an area near the Tunguska River in Siberia. It more-or-less flattened eight-hundred square miles of forest
Uprooted trees formed a ring around the blast’s center, where upright trees were stripped of limbs and bark
Hundreds of reindeer died, but no humans, which was lucky. Not so lucky if you’re a reindeer.
What is a NEO?
NASA defines an NEO as comets or asteroids that pass within 1.3 astronomical units of the Sun.
An astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance between the Earth sand the sun, so just under 93 million miles (150 million kilometers). So basically anything near or inside of our orbit, NASA considers an NEO, and takes particular interest in them.
That’s not just because of the danger. Asteroids and comets are like time capsules from the birth of the solar system. It’s thought that comets were formed in the same process that created the outer gas giants and asteroids are from the process that created the inner rocky planets.
So yeah studying either of them is like opening a window to the solar system 4 billion years ago.
Of course we’d rather go to them than have them come to us. You know, because of the whole…thing.
Near Earth Objects whose trajectories bring them uncomfortably close to Earth are upgraded to Potentially Hazardous Objects, or PHOs. And now I’m hungry for Vietnamese noodles.
Asteroids are by far the most common, so they’re sometimes referred as PHA — Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.
PHOs of all kinds have been tracked by astronomers for years, but efforts got a major boost in 2005, when congress passed a US law directing NASA to identify 90% of NEOs over a certain size. (140 meters)
And that my friends put NASA in the ‘stroid huntin’ business.
Of course ‘stroid huntin’ goes back a long way. The first first asteroid was discovered in 1801, and was given the name asteroid because it means “starlike”. In a dead language people used to speak.
By the year 1900, 464 asteroids had been discovered. By the year 2000, we had 108,066 in our catalog. It’s almost like our technology progressed in that time.
But to give you an idea of how much our technology has continued to progress, in the last 20 years we’ve discovered nearly 10 times as many asteroids. NASA’s current count is just over 1.1 million. That’s some good ‘stroid huntin’.
They range in size from a diameter of less than 10 meters to the largest asteroid in our solar system, Vesta, which is about 530 kilometers. This is the asteroid the Dawn space probe visited in 2011.
Thankfully Vesta is not an NEO, it’s located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where most of the solar system asteroids hang out, though they have been known to migrate.
Which brings us back to the danger ‘stroids.
Good News, Everyone!
First of all, the good news is there are currently no known PHOs is expected to hit us in the next hundred years.
The not-so-good news is that there’s still a lot that need to be found. NASA estimates there should be about 25,000 that fit the parameters of the 2005 directive… and so far they’ve found about 10,000.
When you scale that up to asteroid size, NASA estimates there should be about 4700 PHAs. So far we’ve found 2263 of them. As of the time I’m recording this.
(NASA considers an asteroid that passes within half an AU from Earth to be a PHA)
So yeah, we’ve only found about half of the danger bois that should be out there. But the ones we know about tend to be the larger ones, so it’s not likely another Chicxulub will sneak up on us in our lifetimes.
But what if one does? What if that one in a trillion Don’t Look Up scenario comes true? What are our actual plans?
Well, in the US anyway, the plans fall to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which yes, sounds like the group the Men In Black work for.
By the way, the PDCO is the umbrella office over the Near Earth Object Observations Program that is finding and tracking them in the first place.
So the first thing the PDCO would do is send a probe to study the danger boi because it’s not just the size and trajectory that matters, we also need to know it’s composition.
Because some of these objects are solid iron and others are essentially piles of rubble in space. Hitting one with a missile will have different effects than hitting the other.
In the case of a solid doom rock, there is the option of just nuking it. And my nipples got hard just saying that.
But yeah, NASA has proposed this, not because it would destroy it, but a nuclear blast could deflect it off course, which is all we need to do.
A smaller asteroid might not need to go nuclear and could just hit it with a conventional missile or projectile – the sciency term is “kinetic impactor”.
But these aren’t the best options for the rubble-pile asteroids because an explosion could just cause it to disperse into a cloud of rubble, much of it still directed toward Earth.
It’s like instead of getting hit with a bullet we get hit with buckshot – still not much fun.
So an alternative for rubble-pile doom rocks is landing a rocket on the surface and pushing it off course. This would work for the solid ones as well.
But let’s not kid ourselves, we wanna nuke it if we can.
Now, if the asteroid made of the right material we might be able to deflect it with a laser.
This is known as laser ablation. Basically, the laser would melt part of the asteroid’s surface, and the plumes of gas and ejected material would create enough force to slowly move the asteroid to a safe orbit.
This might could even be done with a large mirror or fresnel lens.
But “slowly” is the operative word, here, this is only an option if the asteroid has the right composition and we find it WAY in advance.
Now, if we get really unlucky and a massive danger boi sneaks up on us, deflection might not be an option. We may have to go straight to disruption.
I mentioned earlier that if we blow up a rubble-pile asteroid it may just create a shower of smaller asteroids. Well it turns out if you hit it hard enough, it might actually work.
I’ll be honest, when I started researching this I really didn’t think that this was a serious option, but there’s a chance that a big enough explosion could turn a dangerous asteroid into space foam.
One recent experiment simulated what would happen if a 1 megaton bomb were detonated near a 100-meter asteroid. They found that it would would disperse 99.9% of the asteroid’s mass.
Instead of a city-killer, they were left with a chunk no bigger than a Chihuahua’s head. Which is the weirdest measurement I’ve ever seen on this channel…
Americans will do anything to not use metric.
But it could work! And by the way, it doesn’t have to just be one bomb, we could send multiple bombs, the first one breaks up the asteroid, the second flings the pieces further off track, repeat as needed.
It’s not like we don’t have thousands of nuclear weapons sitting around.
The question is, could we pull that off in time?
Back in April 2021, NASA conducted an exercise to put existing technologies to the test. They set up a fictional scenario involving an asteroid of unknown size and composition, and gave international experts 6-months lead time.
It… didn’t go well.
They concluded that no existing technology could do the job. No existing rocket could deliver a nuke in time. No existing spacecraft could collide with enough force.
Six months, the experts concluded, is simply not enough time. Opinions differ on how much time would actually be needed but the NASA official who designed the scenario said five years, at least.
(react) Now would be a good time to remember that the chance of this happening is extremely low. But still, we need more information on the PHOs we know about and we need more tools to detect PHOs.
Just like cancer, early detection is key.
NEOS, DART, and HERA
Thankfully some awesome new tools are on the way.
2026 is looking to be a big year for planetary defense for a couple of reasons, the first being the Near-Earth Object Surveyor.
NEOS is a space-based, infrared telescope specifically designed to help NASA finish its mission of cataloging 90% of large NEOs.
It’s kind-of been stuck in development limbo since 2014, but it’s recently cleared a major hurdle, so appears to on its way.
Also 2026 is when NASA expects to get data on the DART mission.
We heard a lot about this when it launched in November of last year, but DART stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test. And it’s the first time we’ll attempt to redirect an asteroid using a kinetic impactor.
Its target is a 160-meter wide asteroid named Dimorphos that orbits a 780-meter wide asteroid named Didymos. It’s kind-of like a moonlet.
The idea is that DART will slam into Dimorphos at a blistering 6.6 km per second, which should move its orbit closer to Didymos.
Currently, it takes 11 hours and 55 minutes to orbit, it’s expected after the blast it’ll orbit every 10 minutes. And this will be detectible by Earth-based telescopes.
Now to be clear, neither Didymos nor Dimorphos are a threat to Earth, this is merely a test to provide data on asteroid deflection.
So yeah, it launched last year, it’s set to collide in September of this year, 2022, and we’ll be able to tell if it was successful pretty soon afterwards.
But in 2026, a pair of cubesats developed by ESA will rendezvous with Dimorphos to examine the aftermath and see what went right… or what went wrong.
Either way, it’ll provide insights that will improve our deflection plans. And might help astronomers sleep better at night.
A Near-Miss That Wasn’t
Just a few months ago — January 2022 — a discovery was made that probably caused a few nightmares.
On January 6, an asteroid called 2022 AE1 was spotted on what appeared to be a collision course.
Work to Be Done
Because yeah, a year-and-a-half is not enough time to deflect it with current technology. Now, I want to say that if we really only had a year an a half to save ourselves that it would clarify things and we’d find a way to solve the problem. Recent events have given me reason to doubt that.
Which is why Don’t Look Up resonated so much when it came out. With the current wave of distrust in science we’re seeing, would people be willing to fund an emergency project to stop a threat that we can’t see? One that’s not going to affect us for a couple of years? Tell me what you think down below.
This whole topic is interesting because simultaneously 100 tons of space stuff falls to Earth every day… but the chances of any of it being catastrophic is extremely small.
I guess that’s just the reality of being on a rock flying through a vast galaxy filled with tiny rocks. And a handful of dangerbois.