Don’t Look Up: When Asteroids Attack

Of the many new movies that were released this holiday season, Don’t Look Up (Netflix) features one of the most relevant messages to viewers about science and its current place in society.

Don’t Look Up follows the story of two scientists who desperately try to convey to the U.S. president that the world will soon be destroyed by a giant asteroid. Not only does the film show the tragedy of scientific data being swept up in politics, but also reveals science’s all-too-familiar place in society: being swept under the rug. 


Background: Asteroids in Astronomy

Though audiences may feel torn about the struggles of these fictional scientists, they will most definitely be concerned with the movie’s main plot point, which involves a massive falling asteroid. In the movie, the space rock is referred to as a “planet-killer,” relaying the seriousness of the situation, and leaving viewers wondering about whether a cataclysmic-scale asteroid strike could actually happen.

Asteroids are important for many astronomers because they illustrate the dynamics of space. As our Earth was shaped in part by asteroids throughout time, scientists hope to study asteroids to better understand how planets change over centuries. Asteroids are also important because they can transport materials across space. In the past, asteroids brought life to earth in the form of the first building blocks: carbon-based molecules. They can also transport other molecules and elements across our solar system.


Analysis: Stalking Asteroids 

But these space rocks also have a much darker and more destructive side. After all, it was an asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. The Earth gets bombarded by space material every day, most of it not big enough to make a difference. But keeping an eye on the skies is important, as asteroids like the one from Don’t Look Up could appear as a potential threat if they can get close enough.


According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a partner of NASA, researchers mainly use telescopes to keep an eye on asteroid movement. These near-earth objects (NEOs), are seen using powerful ground-based telescopes around the world, including the Pans-STARRS1 in Hawaii. There is even a space-based telescope, the NEOWISE, that looks out for asteroids from its orbit. After an asteroid is seen, astronomers quickly calculate if it will be a hazard, after which they add their report to the NASA database.


Outlook: Good News for Earth

Though the prospect of asteroids like the one in Don’t Look Up represents a real (and terrifying) possibility, in all probability there won’t be one large enough to cause any real trouble crashing into Earth any time soon. This is because according to some NASA experts, the trajectories of these asteroids won’t result in a collision, and currently NASA anticipates there being only around 25,000 hazardous asteroids altogether. In the vastness of space, this presents a rather small risk.

In fact, some of these potentially-dangerous asteroids could also serve a beneficial purpose. With their close orbits to Earth and their large size, they could be exploited for raw materials. These raw materials could help fuel our machines or help develop new technology.

While it seems unlikely our world will end anytime soon with a giant asteroid collision, Don’t Look Up has at least brought attention to several relevant questions about these fascinating space rocks, and their place in our galaxy.