Don’t Look Up: Several Asteroids Are Heading Towards Earth – Dealing With Real-Life Threats to Our Planet

Asteroid Earth Atmosphere

Could it happen?

Don’t look now – but we are currently experiencing a rash of stories about a forthcoming global catastrophe. But in a change from reports of pandemics and climate change, this global catastrophe is produced by the impact of a giant asteroid. Or comet. Or both. This may feel extra ominous given the events in the recent Netflix film “Don’t Look Up,” in which the Earth is threatened by a “planet killer” asteroid.

But how worried should we really be – and what would happen if such a body actually hit us?

It has been my experience that killer asteroids tend to strike in the summer months, when news is thin on the ground. Maybe we are so tired of grim news about the spread of the omicron COVID variant and associated problems that a killer asteroid (or comet) makes a refreshing change.

Some UK newspapers have turned to Nostradamus, the 16th century astrologer. A couple ran stories at the end of 2021 about 2022 being the year in which Nostradamus predicted that the world would end in a giant impact with a body from space. This hook has resulted in tabulations of objects that may (or, more likely, will not) come close to the Earth in 2022.

My favorite list was published by the Sun newspaper, which described five asteroids heading towards the Earth in January alone.

The scary headline and its accompanying image of an Earth in apparent danger is somewhat undermined by the sentences following the image, in which the newspaper states that “all of the forecasted asteroids this year will pass by Earth by a significant distance and is very unlikely they will hit our planet.” We have already missed (or been missed by) the first two asteroids in this list (2021 YQ and 2021 YX) which hurtled by Earth on January 5 at distances of 1.3 and 2.4 million miles, respectively.

Barringer Crater Aerial Photo

Barringer Crater aerial photo. Credit: USGS

No, I didn’t notice them either – and I study asteroids. There are a further three asteroids predicted to pass between 1 and 5 million miles from the Earth in the next few days, ranging in size from that of a car to that of the Statue of Liberty. The one that will get the closest will still be four times as far away as the Moon, so not exactly close calls.

Is ‘Don’t Look Up’ realistic?

Don’t Look Up is an allegory, using the globally catastrophic impact of a “planet killer” for the globally catastrophic impact of climate change. It is a tale of corruption, venality and political and corporate self-interest placed ahead of the health and welfare of humanity. It is also very funny.

Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot focuses around two astronomers (a graduate student and her professor) who discover a comet that will collide with Earth in six months’ time. They try to tell the President of the United States (played gloriously by Meryl Streep), but she is more concerned with the mid-term elections.

The film pokes fun at right-wing US politics, the influence of donations to political parties on policy (and politicians), the increasing capacity for modern technology to collect information about health, habits, and lifestyle and the use of that information by technology giants.

It does not poke fun at the science though: the discovery of the comet is (sort of) realistic. Which is as it should be, since Amy Mainzer, Principal Investigator of NASA’s NEOWISE asteroid tracking program, was scientific advisor to the production. In the film, the astronomers report their findings to the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which, as the movie shows, is a real organization operated by NASA.

So is the film realistic? The Earth has been hit by large asteroids in the past – which is why there are no enormous dinosaurs roaming the planet today. And it is bombarded every day by tonnes of dust and meteorites. It is certain that a “planet killer” is written in the future (though occurring at most once in 50 million years) – and this is taken much more seriously by international governments than is shown in the film.

There is a well-tested protocol for reporting new asteroids and comets, which is how we know about the ones passing close(ish) to Earth this month.

There are also plans to mitigate the potential consequences from an asteroid on collision course with the Earth. These typically rely on deflecting the asteroid’s course, as trying to shoot it down last minute isn’t feasible – it would take too much energy. The launch in November of NASA’s DART mission, a technology-testing mission, will further help shed light on how to best deflect asteroids threatening Earth.

But where Don’t Look Up touches a nerve is the lack of preparedness for the emergency if (when) it finally happens and the mitigation plans have failed. Here I come back to the allegory for climate change. There is no Plan B. In the film, the slogan ‘Don’t Look Up’ is a denial that an approaching comet will destroy the planet – it is portrayed as fake news.

I thought it was a great film. It is entertainment. But it is not fake news. We are a global community and we must act together.

Written by Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences, The Open University.

This article was first published in The Conversation.The Conversation

12 Comments on "Don’t Look Up: Several Asteroids Are Heading Towards Earth – Dealing With Real-Life Threats to Our Planet"

  1. “The film pokes fun at right-wing US politics….”

    Of course, as the entertainment establishment would disdain any notion of ridiculing the Left.

  2. Actually, it pokes fun at the left wing. Since the president is supposed to be killary Clinton. Since the left are the biggest big business sell outs.

  3. Intereting Perspective.

    As the Chinese say, in every Risk there is an Opportunity.

    Get Tractor Beam Technologies developed for Small , Medium and Large Scale Asteroids whcih, may be on a collision ccourse with the third planet from the Sun (The Real Shinig fiery One in the Sky, which brings its life giving rays rays to ensure that Life thrives on the third rock.

    If we capture these gifts from the Almighty, and ensure that they are safely lowered on other Rocky Planets nearby, they maybe quite useful as the core of these Rocky material probably contain metals we need and are currently mining from the bowels of our planet on which we reside

    If I remeber correctly, Laborartory experiments for the Tractor Beam Technollogy has already been successfully proven. The only thing to do is to apply Industrial Methods we have been using for a few centuries for scaling up the same to make it available in Space

    On a lighter note, the”Sun” in the UK is a newspaper ” . As any Newspaper owner knows Headlines Sell newspapers. Can’t’blame them for using every trick in the book to make a living.

    The Use of Rags like this to share useful information which is dated and anyway 24 hours old news will fade away . The Trees will be much safer ina Digital World. We need many more Trees to breathein the carbon-di-oxde we mammmals breathe out and alsoensure that oxygen balance is restored in the Air we breathe..

    Digital Newspapers is the Future. Right Jimmy Olsen.

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.

  4. Scientists are capable of cooperating internationally. Unfortunately cooperation is not part of the DNA of politicians. What went wrong during our evolution?

  5. You realize that attention-getting flickering on Google News’s page can trigger an epileptic attack ij people who suffer epilepsyl right?

  6. These posts get more and more depressing.

  7. John Branscombe | January 10, 2022 at 2:15 pm | Reply

    Consider a modified gravitational tractor beam of sorts: A spacecraft that is massive enough to influence the velocity of an asteroid that could use ion engines to hold station at whatever appropriate point was determined best. The mass of the spacecraft pulls it and the asteroid towards each other while the spacecraft retreats and maintains its relative position.
    A big part of any space travel is how big the payload is. To put a tonne of stuff in low Earth orbit is one thing. To put tonnes of stuff on an orbit escaping the Earth and catching up with an asteroid is quite another. The expense for fuel would be outrageous to send a meaningful mass to do the job.
    There should be no need to carry a huge mass to the asteroid to do the job. I suggest landing on the asteroid and gathering mass from it to use instead. Take large nets or bags or whatever containers that can hold a large amount of boulders, rocks or regolith and fill them there. Once filled, then gently lift off the surface and manoeuvre away to the point that will be most effective.

  8. MD ABDUR RASHID AKAND | January 10, 2022 at 7:47 pm | Reply

    The asteroids are thrown towards the Earth to drive the evil satanic forces who like to peep in the sky to gather information about what new steps are being undertaken in the sky for the world according to Holy Scriptures. However, asteroids coming towards the earth signifies some specific interection in the biophysical world due to unscrupulous actions, evil deeds, sins and sinful acts, oppressions and discriminations with defiance of God Almighty Allah’s Order according to Holy Scriptures specially the Holy Qur’an, Surah Ar-Rum Verse-41and Surah Al An-A’m Verse-65 and Surah Ar-Rahman Verses 7 to 9. The warning shots are being shot indicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and unusual natural calamities and some dangerous might follow soon.

  9. Bagging rocks from an asteroid might prove dolifficult because of the impenetrable density of the asteroid. Fire from the sky is the next big biblical thing. But that’ll have to wait until the great resurrection, the rule of the beast, the thousand year rule of Christ. So we still have time for a pizza or two. Maybe we should be eating kosher pizza?

  10. Maybe we all need to accept the fact that there are alot of things noone can explain but we all will get through it no matter what everyone keep their heads up n keep watchin the sky while we dont know wats in the oceans of our planet trying to blow up asteroids make something that can withstand water pressure n lets go deep n find out wats down there

  11. The Bible is clear that in the period of time soon to occur which it refers to as the Tribulation, which is God’s judgement of the planet, there will be two celestial events which take place. The one is referred to as a mountain (asteroid?) falling from the heavens and killing a third of humanity, and the other is a star (comet, meteorite?) falling to earth making water undrinkable.

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