Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing
One of my earliest cinematic memories is from when I was nine years old. Bruce Willis had just sacrificed his own life for Ben Affleck’s, and stood stoic on the surface of an asteroid as his crew left him to die. I spent the rest of Armageddon uncontrollably sobbing. At the time, nothing could have been more tragic to me than a bunch of doomed roughneck friends working to detonate a nuclear weapon, a climax in a fog of Michael Bay Explosions™.
The year before Armageddon came out, Hale-Bopp whizzed past Earth. I remember standing barefoot on the deck behind our ranch-style house in the suburbs, watching the comet's glow. And eight years before that, the year I was born, in 1989, an asteroid snuck past our planet at 46,000 miles an hour, half a million miles away. It went undetected until eight days later—uncomfortably close for an object that could end life on Earth if it'd made contact.
After a friendly scuffle over how this near-miss was handled, astronomers agreed that they should probably be more on top of this type of thing. The Near Earth Object Observation program (NEOO) was formed. That summer, two big-budget films about killer asteroids—Deep Impact and Armageddon—hit theaters.
These moments combined—the childhood awe of ridiculous disaster films, and the once-in-a-lifetime comet sightings of the 80s and 90s—are probably why I hold such a soft spot for NASA’s underrated, science-gathering, world-saving child: asteroid detection and exploration efforts.
Comets and meteors have played a role in humanity's collective consciousness since we've been able to look up. Ancient civilizations must have been witness to countless meteor showers raining across their dark skies, a sight most of us living in city centers have to travel far from light pollution to see.
The weight and meaning these spinning balls of ice and rock carried was often grave or miraculous. Some researchers believe the Biblical "Star of Bethlehem" was actually a comet. The Bible ends with another allegorical near-earth object, or NEO: Wormwood, the water-poisoning "star that fell to earth" in the apocalyptic book of Revelations, would likely be described as a meteorite in current times.
NEOs captured the imaginations of other poets and artists as well. Lord Byron's epic poem Manfred imagines a doomsday comet that foretells suffering:
Space bosom'd not a lovelier star.
The hour arrived-- and it became
A wandering mass of shapeless flame,
A pathless comet, and a curse,
The menace of the universe;
Still rolling on with innate force,
Without a sphere, without a course,
A bright deformity on high,
The monster of the upper sky!
Continuing backward, to 10,950 BCE, a temple illustration in Turkey tells the story of a comet impact around the time of the start of a mini ice age. And of course, we now know that an asteroid likely killed off the dinosaurs. Sometimes, these "menaces of the universe" didn't just foreshadow doom. They caused it.
The comet that foretold the start of the modern-day efforts to detect NEOs was named Shoemaker-Levy 9, after its discoverers, Gene Shoemaker and David Levy. As it zoomed around Jupiter's gravity field in July 1992, the over one mile-diameter comet broke apart into smaller pieces. Those pieces collided with Jupiter in July 1994. Astronomers watched, awestruck, as it hit the gas giant's swirling surface. This was the first time it became clear to contemporary scientists that planets within our solar system could be impacted. If a similar space rock hit Earth, they determined, the result would be catastrophic.
By 1998, NASA had jumped through all the right legislative hoops to start detecting and tracking in earnest. And the space agency had a Congressional mandate: to find and catalogue at least 90 percent of all NEOs larger than one kilometer in size (or roughly two-thirds of a mile) within 10 years. The combined effort was—and still is, colloquially—known as Spaceguard, a term first coined in Arthur C. Clarke's 1973 Rendezvous with Rama, perhaps a work that influenced those scientists and lawmakers when they were younger.
Already, NASA official programs were imitating art.
Lindley Johnson has been tracking how objects move across the skies for most of his life. The current director of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Johnson grew up in the Apollo era, and doesn't remember a time when he wanted to do anything else but be involved in the space program.
As a Lieutenant in the Air Force, he tracked human-built satellites, making sure they wouldn't collide with aircraft.
Now, the scale is a little bigger—and the risks involved, planetary.
The work of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, officially established in 2016, is to determine what's out there, what poses an impact risk to Earth, and what to do if anything does get a little too close.
There are three main ways humanity could deflect an asteroid heading toward Earth, Johnson said:
1. The "kinetic impactor" approach: Slamming a spacecraft into the object to nudge its trajectory away from earth. This option requires a serious luxury of time: "If an approaching asteroid were detected tomorrow, perhaps 20 years would be required to build and launch an impactor, to reach and impact the target, and to nudge the asteroid from Earth’s path," a NASA explanation of the technique states.
They successfully tested kinetic impact on comet Tempel 1 in 2005, with a probe that smashed into it with a bright spray of light. In 2024, we'll try it again, with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). NASA will hit the moon of an asteroid that's in orbit around the sun, to demonstrate that they can change its orbit. "It won't change the orbit of the parent asteroid, so we don't endanger the earth," Johnson said. "It's sort of an important thing—to not increase the hazard."
2. The gravity tractor: Flying a spacecraft around an object to use gravity to tug it into a different direction. This technique hasn't been tested, and would also require a lot of lead time.
3. The nuclear option: Hollywood's favorite asteroid-blasting technique. So let's dwell on this one for a moment.
In Deep Impact, released in May 1998, the crew of the Messiah lands on an asteroid destined for Earth and tries to drop a nuke below its surface. Everyone on the Messiah dies, after embarking on a suicide mission to fly straight into a crevasse with bombs in tow. This both works, and doesn't work: The blast splits the asteroid into two pieces, both of which still smash into Earth, wiping out the whole eastern seaboard with megatsunamis and blotting out the sun for two years. Humanity as a whole survives, but at great cost.
Deep Impact was nominated for "Worst Screenplay For A Film Grossing More Than $100 Million" at the 1998 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, but is regarded as surprisingly accurate, as far as doomsday asteroid movies go. Shortly after its release, astrophysicist David Morrison, senior scientist at Ames Research Center said the film "gets high marks for understanding the nature of the impact threat and for the quality of its special effects imagery."
In Armageddon, released two months later, NASA decides that it'll be easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than it would be for astronauts to learn how to drill. (This, apparently, was a touchy point between director Michael Bay and actor Ben Affleck, who says he was told to "shut the fuck up" when he brought up this odd contradiction.) Two high-tech shuttles, the Freedom and Independence, fly to this film's killer asteroid to, again, drop a bomb below the surface and try to blow it to pieces. Instead of breaking it into two, it inexplicably... dissolves completely.
Neither of these scenarios is what would actually occur if we needed to nuke an asteroid, Johnson said. "We wouldn't do it in the way Hollywood movies would depict, we don't want to blow it up into pieces, because then we still have those pieces in the orbit that would impact earth." Instead, the detonation would occur above the surface of the asteroid, which would irradiate and superheat the surface material of the asteroid and cause it to blow off. This would change its velocity, and in turn, its orbit and trajectory toward humanity.
This plan, like the others, would require us to have enough forewarning that a shove could divert an object away from Earth.
"I think Deep Impact had the better science in it...but Armageddon has the better soundtrack," Johnson said. But his favorite in the doomsday asteroid category was released before astronomers were even seriously studying them: a 1979 film called Meteor. In it, Sean Connery plays a NASA manager charged with the protection of the Earth against an apocalyptic asteroid.
Meteor was inspired by a 1967 MIT student report called "Project Icarus," which hypothesized that six Saturn V rockets carrying nuclear warheads and Apollo guidance modules could kick an asteroid away from Earth, by detonating at varying intervals just above the surface of the object. The final rocket, as Earth's last hope, would launch just 18 hours before impact. It's a plan that's closer to reality than most modern-day films, but that's not why Meteor is Johnson's pick.
"I like it because Sean Connery played me."
The fate of the planet won't all rest on the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The "coordination" part means they're in charge of getting the US on the same page as the rest of the planet—if an impact is looming, they'll round up intel from around the globe, from the European Space Agency to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and other operations here in the US, like the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to decide what to do next. There are a lot of organizations around the world doing this work, or some aspect that would contribute to it, contrary to the cowboy-hero archetype movies give us.
Anne Virkki, lead research scientist at the Arecibo Observatory, said that around 95 percent of her team's nearly 500 hours of sky observation time each year goes toward near-Earth asteroids. This year, they've hit a record, observing around 100 NEAs. "This is all so-called post-discovery characterization work, which means that we don't look for asteroids, but we refine the orbit information of targets that have been recently discovered by optical telescopes, and look into their physical properties," including shape, size, rotation, and any moons the asteroids might have snagged in their orbits, she said.
Much of the work that's done by these organizations is fairly tedious. A lot of it involves tracking blips on screens, like the lonely Catalina Sky Survey's night watch. But we still see headlines concocted by tabloids that sound more like something from ancient Rome than 2019. “Deep impact predicted for 2069 claims Nostradamus prophecy expert." "Expert Warns Of Undetected 20-Mile-Wide Killer Asteroid That Can Destroy Earth."
I asked Virkki if she ever finds these headlines frustrating. Surely they misrepresent the hard work she and others put into this process, right? "I take them more as amusing than frustrating," she said. "On the positive side, although they're not always scientifically accurate, those headlines keep the public interest up regarding the federal funding for asteroid surveys and planetary defense."
Johnson agreed. "Movies and what you see in the media does bring this issue to people's attention," he said. "The average citizen of the United States probably knows more about the asteroid threat these days than back in the 90s, until movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact. Those movies don't have the physics right, but at least they made people aware that this is something that could happen."
There's plenty to be excited about in the world of asteroid detection and mining missions without over-hyped headlines about cosmic killers. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office hosts regular asteroid impact scenario exercises, where scientists run through drills in hypothetical risk scenarios. NASA is set to touch an asteroid, when the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft rendezvous with asteroid Bennu. We've seen images from the surface of an asteroid, with the Japanese Space Agency's mission to Ryugu.
When I watched the OSIRIS-REx mission launch in 2017, It felt like a return to childhood wonder. Here was something humans made, parts of which were inspired in a garage using Shop-Vacs, blasting toward a mile-and-a-half wide space rock hundreds of millions of miles away. And I felt it again last year, when the JAXA missions returned rover photos that make it look as if we're standing on Ryugu.
There's something deeply special about asteroids, in part because we fear them. These are the bucking mechanical bulls of the cosmos, and we're reaching out to ride them, in order to collect their secrets of the origins of the universe. Hale-Bopp was spectacular because it was colored with a little fear, a little mystery, and awe. I'll be in my 70s when Hailey's Comet makes its way back to our view again in 2061, but I hope I can watch it with the same wonder as when I was a child—and I hope by then we'll have experienced an asteroid renaissance, to regain our dual-edged affection and dread toward those rocky bodies in outer space.