Bad Universe Preview: Will an Asteroid Hit Earth?

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On Sunday night (Aug. 29, at 10pm), Phil Plait’s “Bad Universe: Asteroid Apocalypse,” premieres on Discovery Channel, featuring lasers, high-velocity projectiles and 7,500 pounds of high explosives. Why? To destroy asteroids and comets, of course!

Actually, although Phil does a fair bit of blowing stuff up in “Asteroid Apocalypse,” it’s not just about blasting holes in the desert for fun (although it is a heck of a lot of fun). There’s a serious — and alarming — message he wants to deliver to the Bad Universe viewers: We will get hit by some kind of space rock in the future.

SLIDE SHOW: The top 10 near-Earth objects (NEOs) as selected by the Discovery News team.

So that sets the tone for the show; the world has a problem and we need to find a way to prevent a devastating impact from wiping out a city, or worse. Let’s not forget the dinosaurs, since they didn’t have the luxury of technology to avoid their fate.

In all honesty, I thoroughly enjoyed Asteroid Apocalypse, Phil’s enthusiasm for presenting science in a clear and exciting way is infectious. The key thing when communicating science is to make it relevant to the general public, so to make it relevant, Phil blows up Sydney with an impact that would make any nuclear explosion look like a fire cracker.

Wait. Why Sydney?

“Yeah, I get asked that question a lot,” Phil said when I had the chance to speak with him about the show. “It wasn’t a choice on my part, I asked my showrunner the same thing: Why are we using Sydney?”

When you think about it, every disaster movie or documentary destroys a city with a recognizable landmark. “So we wanted a city with a really recognizable piece of real estate on it that wasn’t previously shown to be destroyed in some other show and Sydney has the Opera House,” he added. “So it seemed like a good choice.”

Alas, after Phil’s scaled-down impact event was detonated at the EMRTC Testing Range in the New Mexico desert for “Bad Universe,” the scale model of the Sydney Opera House was toast; the impressive explosion (including a very cool capture of the resulting shock wave) ripped a hole 17 feet deep by 60 feet wide. If this were scaled up to a “medium” sized asteroid, and it hit Sydney, the city would be leveled.

“The meteorite that created the Meteor Crater in Arizona was probably only about 50 yards across,” he continued, “when you think about it, that wasn’t all that big, not much bigger than a suburban yard, but when it hit, it blew up with the yield of a 15-20 megaton bomb, so you don’t want something that big hitting you.”

WIDE ANGLE: Find out more about Bad Universe and how asteroids could really mess with your day.

WATCH VIDEOS: From meteors to asteroids, browse this Discovery News video playlist and discover what it takes for a piece of space rock to turn potentially hazardous for life on Earth.

Alarmingly, a 50-yard (or a little over 45 meters) asteroid isn’t something astronomers can detect very easily and as Phil pointed out, NASA’s guidelines for detecting asteroids that pose a threat to Earth is anything over 140 meters. “That’s big enough to do severe damage on 100 megaton-size or bigger. But that’s the size when they’re big enough to detect in advance.”

“Something a mile across, the chances are that we’ll detect it decades in advance. But something a hundred meters across is small enough to avoid detection and in many cases the first indication you have that you’re about to get hit by something of that size is a flash of light in the sky.”

So the only way we’ll probably be able to stop a 100-meter asteroid is to get hit by it. Oh well.

What about the bigger ones? If we have the lead-time of “decades,” surely there’s something we can do?

SLIDE SHOW: Top 10 Ways to Stop an Asteroid

Now this is where the real fun starts in “Asteroid Apocalypse.” Phil brings some apocalypse to the asteroids: nukes.

By blasting a high-velocity projectile into a variety of rocks — each with a different property to simulate the real thing, from metallic to a “rubble pile” — the resulting carnage is studied. This is how science is done! I won’t spoil the conclusion of this test (which includes loads of very cool high-speed photography), but let’s just say that it doesn’t bode well for nuclear weapons as our final line of defense against an incoming space rock.

But going all DEFCON 1 on asteroids isn’t the only option we have, assuming we have enough time.

Phil goes on to investigate the various possible deflection techniques and arrives at a proposed recipe for asteroid deflection success, but there’s a huge question mark hanging over whether we’ll be able to put his plan to the test: we don’t currently have a sustainable in-space infrastructure that can be used to launch an asteroid deflection mission.

In order for asteroid deflection to become feasible, we need time and planning. And a test-run wouldn’t go amiss either.

“We don’t want our first test of this be something that’s heading right for us,” Phil concluded, “so we want to be able to test this on something safe at first and fiddle around with it, so we understand what we’re doing before something dangerous comes along.”

“We just don’t have that right now, we don’t have any way of getting up there.”

“Bad Universe: Asteroid Apocalypse” is definitely worth the watch, there’s great depth behind the science, plus a really nice “Mythbusters”-esque feel to the high-energy experiments carried out to test Phil’s theories.

So that left one question I had to ask: should “Mythbusters” Adam and Jamie be concerned about the new Bad Astronomer on the block?

“Oh no, not at all, I think our shows complement each other,” Phil replied.

“But our explosion was really big.”

Have a sneak peek of how big the explosion really was:

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