In the summer of 1998, Hollywood offered two blockbuster movies about asteroids hurtling toward Earth.
Released May 8 this year, Deep Impact, directed by Mimi Leder, told a story about humanity facing a catastrophic threat from a deadly asteroid, prompting the US government to build a network of underground shelters for a select few. Michael Bays Armageddon, It hit theaters seven weeks later, on June 30 A ragtag team of oil drillers, led by Bruce Willis, embarks on a dangerous mission to save the planet from an incoming, man-eating asteroid by blowing it up with a nuclear bomb buried at its center.
Now, 25 years after its original release — and just eight months after DART, the first-ever NASA mission to successfully deflect an asteroid’s trajectory in space — Yahoo Entertainment has asked itself: Was there any truth to this fiction?
As several NASA scientists tell us, ArmageddonThe depiction of blowing up an asteroid by planting a nuclear bomb in its core is unrealistic. That’s what their colleagues say Deep ImpactThe depiction of a massive tidal wave wiping out the east coast is far-fetched.
Here’s what else some of the leading minds in asteroid research had to say.
Which film is scientifically more accurate?
Phil Plait, an American astronomer who worked with NASA on the Hubble telescope, says Deep Impact is by far the most “science-based” of the two.
In fact, he says, some scenes in the film aren’t far from reality. There’s a moment when scientists tether a spacecraft to the menacing comet before planting nuclear bombs in its core, hoping the blast will throw it off its collision course. Aside from the atomic bombs, this method is strikingly similar to the one used in September 2016, when the Philae Lander became the first man-made structure to land on a comet’s surface to retrieve images and data.
Seth Jacobson, a planetary scientist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan, agrees Deep Impact is the more science-based film, but says, “I don’t see why burying a bomb in an asteroid would be a good strategy at all. That just wasn’t going to happen.”
Plait agreed that “the biggest flaw in most asteroid movies” is characters believing that blowing up an asteroid is a good idea. “In reality, it’s better to make sure it never hits us,” as the recent DART mission achieved through the use of a kinetic impactor – a spaceship that functioned like a great slingshot to deviate its course.
Also, “blowing up asteroids is harder than most people think,” notes William Bottke, director of the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute.
Even if one were to succeed in blowing up an asteroid with a nuclear bomb, the heat from the blast would vaporize material on the surface and expand violently, ultimately pushing down on the rock and spinning it off a very, very fast asteroid, or “bullet” to a deadly “shotgun blast”.
And then there was the late Jay Melosh, an American geophysicist who specialized in impact crater formation and proposed a way to deflect asteroids without bombs.
“He argued that we could fly to the asteroid and use a large optical surface to focus the sun’s energy on a small spot on the asteroid,” says Bottke. “This would instantaneously vaporize the rock in a way not so different from using the sun and a magnifying glass to burn a piece of paper. By choosing your points carefully, you could create a rocky comet and slowly nudge the asteroid onto a different trajectory. “
Paul Chodas, director of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, agrees Deep Impact is the more believable of the two, although “both films had a lot of scientific flaws,” he says.
“The more these films are based on scientific realism, the better,” he says. “But I also understand the need to make these films dramatic and entertaining.”
Did the underground shelters make sense?
Deep Impact famous emphasized social injustices by building a network of underground shelters available only to the mega-rich, but Bottke says it’s probably a dope anyway.
“For very large impacts, the material ejected from the explosion can generate firestorms far from the event and long-term global cooling from the small particles that remain trapped in the atmosphere,” he explains. It can also affect agriculture, which depends on sun, water and healthy soil for seed growth, which “could easily lead to global famine.”
Subterranean shelters might theoretically save humanity, but it all depends on “how big the comet is and where it hits,” says Plait. “If you know where the impact will be and place the shelter far away and heavily fortified, then… maybe?”
If the comet were a so-called “planet killer,” like the crashing Chicxulub impactor that wiped out the dinosaurs, there will no doubt be changes in the atmosphere that will last for years and affect all animals on Earth.
“However, with a little forethought, it might be possible to survive this time below the surface,” notes Jacobson. “We know that many small animals did just that because humans are the evolved descendants of Chicxulub impact survivors.”
Should we be worried about planet-destroying asteroids?
Nobody should lose sleep over it, say the experts. “There are no large asteroids heading towards Earth in our lifetime,” says Chodas. “A major impact is extremely unlikely, and NASA and other institutions around the world are working to further reduce concern as better asteroid-seeking telescopes come online.”
That includes the NEO Surveyor mission, due to launch in September 2027, which aims to find at least two-thirds of near-Earth objects larger than 460 feet, or “those that could potentially cause regional devastation, if any, on Earth.” should meet,” he explains.
Not to mention that a species-wiping comet would become public very early on, meaning transparency would be required of citizens on a global scale, giving us more than enough time to prepare – unlike in Deep Impactthan the world had about a year before the impact, and in Armageddon, who only had 18 days.
But if we’ve learned anything from Hollywood storylines like this, then it’s about time always the essence.
“When we have decades [to prepare], which is very likely, scientists and policymakers from around the world will develop an action plan,” says Bottke. “The asteroid will become the most studied celestial object in history, and a plan is being developed to carefully place it on a trajectory that will miss Earth. If we have a few years, the only option would be to use nuclear weapons “attached to a kinetic impactor” for diversion.
Of course, this is all hypothetical, says Chodas. “We have already found more than 95% of the asteroids capable of doing this. And they won’t be heading for Earth anytime soon.”
In conclusion, the scientists say, if Hollywood can get people excited about science, that’s a good thing, imprecise or not.
“A lot of scientists today, myself included, have been inspired by shows like star trek,” says Plait, “although the science can be shady.”
Still, Bottke adds, accuracy matters. And all it takes is “a bit of scripting,” something planetary scientists who are “huge nerds who love sci-fi” would happily sign up for. “Audience also responds positively,” he adds, “when they feel like the filmmakers tried to make things right.”