“Asteroids In Film & Fiction” – by Timothy Bateson

If you’ve been watching the news over the last few days, you might have come across an event that is happening tonight. Asteroid 2012 TC4 will be giving us a stunning close-quarters flyby on October 12th 2017. In fact, there is a small chance that this city-block sized object will be passing inside the orbit of the geostationary satellites.

NASA and several other agencies are taking the opportunity to track and characterize the object, as a way to test our preparedness for potential Earth impacts.

Looking Back Over The Years

In light of this event, I thought I’d have a look at how asteroids and meteors have impacted film and fiction throughout the years. Given how many stories have been created over the years, I’m not even going to try and address every story that has featured asteroids and meteors. Instead, I’m going to try and bring attention to some of the stories that people might not have heard of, or underestimated.

Early Stories:

Jules & Michel Verne wrote “The Chase of the Golden Meteor” in 1908, and told the tale of two astronomers who discovered a new asteroid. Over the course of the story we discover that they have in fact discovered a solid gold object destined to crash to earth and potentially destabilize the international economy.

“Our Distant Cousins” (1929) by Lord Dunsany follows the story of an aviator attempting to fly to Mars, but ending up on Eros by mistake.

In 1939 Issac Asimov joined the list of people writing about the asteroids, when the survivors of a wreck are stranded in orbit around Vesta, in “Marooned off Vesta”.

In “The Little Prince” (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the title character lives on an asteroid named “B-612”, and travels between other asteroids, with their own inhabitants.

What makes some of these stories interesting is the assumption that it is possible to travel to other planets, or even explore the asteroids, in a time when scientists were just figuring out how to shoot rockets over long distances.

More Recent Stories:

With the advent of rocketry, and the start of the space race, it’s no wonder that more and more stories about the asteroids came from the years after the Second World War.

In 1951, John Wyndham wrote “The Day of the Triffids”, where the light of a meteor shower blinds the entire population of Earth, except for a handful of lucky people. What makes this story so interesting is that it has a very emotional opening, but the creatures that we’re supposed to be terrified of somehow fail to create a viable threat. Yet it can’t be denied that elements of this story turn up in films like “28 Days Later” and “Maximum Overdrive”

“Explorers on the Moon” was a 1952 story in Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin”, that took his characters into space. As they are approaching the moon they come perilously close to an asteroid and Captain Haddock has to be rescued during a spacewalk.

“Rendevous With Rama” (1972) by Arthur C Clarke tells about the aftereffects of an asteroid impact in northern Italy. The main characters are part of an asteroid defense force, an idea that keeps coming around despite the potential costs and logistics involved in creating such a defense.

“Meteor” (1979) is a precursor to “Armageddon”, which explores that happens when a collision with a comet knocks a chunk of asteroid “Orpheus” earthward. One thing that makes this movie interesting is that it was inspired by an MIT report called Project Icarus which presented a plan for preventing a potential catastrophic meteor impact. But it also explores some of the international politics that would be required to enable the necessary cooperation between nations.

In the movie “Deep Impact” (based on Arthur C Clarke’s “The Hammer of God”) the meteor is turned into a comet, and the attempt to deflect the incoming asteroid fails.

So, Where Does All This Leave Us?

Asteroids, meteors, meteorites and comets can all potentially wipe out civilization as we know it. But several steps have been outlined that could help us avoid an impact event.

  1. Detection – Discovering as many potential Earth impacting objects as possible. They key here is not just finding these threats, but doing as far ahead of the impact as possible. Even a very close miss can do severe damage if the object is large enough.
  2. Categorization – Besides being able to find and track incoming objects, we need as much information as possible about what they’re made of, and how they’re constructed. If we have any hope of being able to destroy, or deflect an Earth-bound object, we have to be able to model it’s range of potential behaviors.
  3. Impact Probablity Calculation – The better we are able to detect and track meteors, asteroids and other objects in space, the more chance there is that we can determine if it really represents an impact threat, or will by-pass us, just as 2012 TC4 will.
  4. Deflection – This is really only an option if an impact is predicted early enough. The process involves changing the trajectory of the incoming object away from Earth orbit. Options have included:
    1. Detonating a nuclear device in, or on the object risks destroying loosely held together objects, but potentially creates a large push through the vaporization of rock creating a rocket exhaust effect.
    2. Stand-off Detonation involves detonating multiple devices close to the asteroid surface providing a more gradual push and reducing the risk of fragmenting the object.
    3. Ramming the object with another object is known as the kinetic impact approach, but would require hitting the asteroid with sufficient mass and momentum to deflect it.
    4. Gravitational mass attraction involves moving a steerable object close enough to the asteroid to cause gravitational attraction between the two masses. While the smaller mass might be attracted toward the incoming object, the attraction works both ways. However, this is a very slow approach and would take longer than many other options.
  5. Destruction – Blowing the incoming object into as many pieces as possible. This option presents two possible outcomes, depending on the distance from Earth when the destruction of the object occurs:
    1. If the object is too close, the chances are that instead of creating a single large impact, the incoming object would now be fragmented in such a way as to create multiple smaller impacts. While this might avoid an extinction level event, it would still do significant damage.
    2. If the object is far enough away, it would just give us even more objects to track and characterize for future possible impacts.

In the end it is unlikely that we will ever be able to detect 100% of the potential threat. We might never see the rock that wipes us out. But then again, that time may be a long time off. I guess we’re going to have to take our chances…

So What Do You Think?

Are we going to be hit by ‘the big one’ any time soon?

Are there any films you think I should have included in my list?

Have I missed something on the science, or did I get something wrong with my limited understanding?

Comment below, and let’s make sure 2012 TC4 knows we’re thinking about it…

Related Links:

AstroWatch.Net

ScienceBlog.Com

NASA Jet Propulsion Lab

List of asteroid close approaches to Earth

Asteroids In Fiction (Revolvy.Com)

10 deadly comets, asteroids and meteorites in the movies (Den Of Geek.Com)

Asteroids in fiction (Wikipedia)

Asteroid Impact Avoidance

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