Hollywood gets wrong protecting Earth from asteroids

Hollywood gets wrong protecting Earth from asteroids

In the 1998 movie, “Armageddon,” an asteroid the width of Texas is about to hit Earth. The heroes who stop it in just the nick of time are a group of orange-suited Americans, all men.

Life isn’t always like the movies.

Not that an asteroid couldn’t slam into Earth, mind you. Asteroids — mostly tiny ones — pass by our planet virtually every second.(Hollywood gets wrong protecting Earth from asteroids) But the people charged with stopping the big ones aren’t reaching for their spacesuits with mere hours to spare.

And spoiler alert: They also aren’t all men.

Kirsten Howley

“I would say the number one question I get when I tell people what I work on, is ‘Oh, like ‘Armageddon?’’ And it’s nothing like ‘Armageddon,’” says Lawrence Livermore National Lab physicist Kirsten Howley, whose day job includes defending our planet from asteroids.

Howley doesn’t have an orange jumpsuit at hand, but her job is serious business. She and her team of planetary defenders specialize in how we might deflect an asteroid that poses a threat to Earth. Like Bennu.

Bennu, weighing more than 78 billion kilograms, is an ancient asteroid currently orbiting the sun on a path that brings it close to Earth. It has a 1-in-2,700 chance of colliding, albeit not until 2185.

Last fall, NASA collected a sample from Bennu, the first NASA mission to procure material from an asteroid as it traveled through space. Those samples, once they make it back to Earth, will help physicists like Howley with their very important job — to make sure Bennu (and objects like it) don’t impact.

What that effort requires is a lot more complicated, and less immediately perilous, than the movies would have you think, although the goal of saving life on Earth is just the same.

For starters, Bennu is far more compelling than some dumb rock. What we’ve already learned, and hope to learn about it, could not only save the planet — it could also help change our understanding of what an asteroid (or even life) is.

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