Will a Bad Movie Make For Good Science? Europeans Plan Mission To Destroy Asteroid

It made for one of the worst movies of all time, but the plot of Armageddon is now the operational plans for the European Space Agency. The ESA plans to fire a satellite at an asteroid in 2015 to see if it can destroy (or change the course) of an asteroid. Since Armageddon almost destroyed the career of Bruce Willis, there is hope for ESA.

The target may be a 1600ft-wide asteroid called 99942 Apophis, which has a one in 250,000 chance of hitting Earth in 2036. They will use Hidalgo, which will ram into the asteroid at a speed of around six miles a second. That is either a space craft or, with Spain’s plunge into bankruptcy, the Europeans are playing to shoot persons of the Spanish nobility into space.

Source: Daily Mail

78 thoughts on “Will a Bad Movie Make For Good Science? Europeans Plan Mission To Destroy Asteroid”

  1. I was impressed by both the single paragraph as well as your answer. Let me be clear though, I’m not into the ‘Planet X is going to kill us’ thing but I’ve read in a couple of articles that planets are ejected during the early and chaotic formation of solar systems and that some pretty high number of large objects, planets essentially, are just orphans, roaming about the galaxy without a star to love and nourish them. My mention of such things are generalized, not specific to doomsday scenarios regarding 2012. I must say though, orphan planets and protoplanets are kind of sad, I feel for them.

    You’re right- I’m still using the concept of lowest/highest order inconsistently, bass ackward in fact, the highest order would be the most disordered.

    Obviously the clumpiness is a problem. I have wondered about that. Unless actual forces (weak, strong etc. can’t think of the all, just had a beer with supper- I’d be sharper if it had been coffee- maybe) are affected by entropy there will always be clumpiness. Only an approximation of homogeneousness on a universal scale would be possible.

    I read recently that the universe is at its highest state of entropy, point at anywhere there isn’t a clump of something and it’s as cold as it can get in a universe that isn’t completely ‘dead’, that still has dynamic, if localized, nuclear processes going on. It makes me wish I had a high school that taught me more than basic math ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m not worried about a black hole birthed by the LHC. Too small and short lived to do anything threatening I have read. “The Hole Man”, a story by Larry Niven, is great entertainment but not to be taken seriously. I wonder how many of the people worried about the LHC and any black holes it might spawn were unduly influenced by that story. I think it may have won some awards, the Hugo or Nebula, as well t should have. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Try for one, long, run-on sentence? Go for it! I’m totally simpatico.

  2. Wow – one paragraph. Next time I gotta try for a single run-on sentence…

  3. lottakatz,

    “Since things are still equilibrating maximum entropy has not been attained” is how I would phrase it, but other than that (and deleting the parenthetical “(or constructed)”), I thought your first paragraph was a good summary. I also would avoid the phrase “lowest order of entropy” I know what you mean, but it’s poorly couched since it is a high entropy state. When you start to talk about entropy, the Oort cloud, and the Kuiper belt things get… complicated. we’re talking an intricate dance of objects from the size of a hydrogen atom to possibly 4 times the mass of Jupiter around the sun (which is moved by all of them in turn). I would think that the entropy of the system would increase very slowly, but shit happens (one of the inner planets went and evolved life on itself, for example). The end (or transformation) of the solar system isn’t going to be its heat death – it’s going to be Sol going nova and turning into a red giant (also some cool math [and physics], by the way…) which should just keep spinning as it cools off and the sun goes out. The problem with bringing entropy into play is that it works for very homogenous problems and the observable universe tends to be “clumpy” at ALL levels (plus we don’t know how far this “life” infestation has spread…). Cosmologists theorize that there was a time when the universe was a homogenous gluon paste and I hypothesize that cosmologists are talking out of their collective asses (the LHC should help sort this out when it goes to 14 TeV in 2014 – if it doesn’t make a black hole that swallows the Earth [comparatively speaking, if you want to freak out about something, freak out about a KBO going rogue next week long before you start worrying about a black hole from the LHC…]). If you want to take the discussion farther than this, again I suggest looking up Ilya Prigogine. (By the way, the “orphan planet” thing is kind of like the “planet X” sort of thing – Tyche (if she exists) isn’t an orphan – she’s just estranged from Sol). The complete heat death of the universe is, again, an idealized homogeneous state – I don’t really see how we get there from here. If you are trying to achieve this state on the weekends be sure to wear black – it’s an efficient radiator of heat. As for John Lithgow, he should tell the Academy to “Laugh-a while you can, monkey-boy”. I’m just happy he got to play an alien again in 3rd rock…

  4. Slarti, The only thing I know about entropy is that the universe moves from order to disorder which means from a low entropy state, everything in one small space to a high entropy state, everything diffuse and occupying (or constructing) the entire of the space it has available to itself. (Thank you for the proper phrasing, low v high.) Since things are still inflating perfect entropy is not as yet achieved, if it can be that is.

    So I’m thinking as this little tiny part of the universe continues to seek the lowest order of entropy (which should also be greatest stability) things would just naturally be running into each other where there are a lot of things in a small space like in the Oort cloud, Kuiper Belt, as they seek their most stable configuration. That doesn’t even factor in things like orphan planets wandering around and every other possible action that can screw up their neighbors happy home.

    From what I’ve read a state of perfect entropy/stability would be a cold dead universe withe everything burned out and so far apart nothing could influence anything else. I strive for that state on the weekends.

    OK. Now you know exactly how little I know about cosmology and math. ๐Ÿ™‚ If you can correct any of my misconceptions (painlessly for you) I will probably have a much better shot at reading articles that touch on this kind of thing in the future and understanding some part of them.

    I’m never sorry I pose a question to you or anyone on this blawg,

    BTW, I love Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, John Lithgow should have received an Oscar for his performance. What a great ensemble performance by a group of soon-to-be stars.

  5. Just some evidence of how good Elaine is (and I’m not…):

    Well, Lorenz he had his attractor
    no, his butterfly wasn’t a laugher
    and then there was Otto
    who’s band was quite boffo
    always doubling with change of parameter

    A strange attractor
    Infinitely woven threads
    mixed logistically

  6. Anytime. If you want to learn about this stuff I would suggest James Gleick’s book “Chaos”. It’s a very well written book that is accessible to the layman (that could be a “your mileage may vary” situation – I’m not exactly what you would call math-phobic…). It lays out the origins of all of this stuff. I found it a very interesting read (it was my introduction to the subject) and even though it’s 20 years later it’s still relevant. (learning about how the foundation was built is still the same after the gaping pit turns into a skyscraper…)

  7. Thanks, Slarti, I think. My math career ended with a year of college calculus and a rather miserable semester of symbolic logic. And now I have to go look up Lorenz and Rossler attractors. I think I’ll just go to bed. LOL.

  8. Mike,

    I’m guessing these guys could tell you exactly how you had to hit a cue ball to sink every ball on a pool table in order if they wanted to (assuming no friction and completely elastic collisions) – they’re not the guys that came up with the plan from Armageddon. Back in the early 90s they were using the precursors of this math to make numerical algorithms as part of topological proofs regarding the structure of the Lorenz attractor (I always wanted to apply the same theory and algorithms to the Rossler attractor in order to prove that the duck I saw was actually a duck…) – a decade later they were doing stuff with weak orbital boundaries and now a decade (or more) after that they are shooting missiles at asteroids. This seems like a reasonable progression to me rather than science run amok. I could always be wrong, though.

    Just to be clear – given that I’ve been accused of the fallacy of appealing to authority in the past – I’ve been interested in this sort of math since high school and have studied it as much as I was able in my 10 years of graduate school (and undergrad as well – I looked at books with pretty pictures in high school, but I didn’t really “get” the math at all back then…). It was a topic on my qualifying exam and on my prelim and while I don’t get to use as much of it as I would like in my research, I do touch on it regularly. Everyone can decide for themselves if I’m talking out of my ass about the math, but no one has addressed the issue that I raised (sort of):

    Given a small (but non-zero) probability of catastrophic results, when is it appropriate to act and who should make the decision?

  9. lottakatz,

    I’m not sure exactly how big an object can be hiding on the edges of the solar system without our having found it, but I was thinking about Tyche


    Rather than planet X*. Planet Xers (and this whackjob who channeled an Indian chief to talked to aliens that warned her of the impending doom [which they apparently keep rescheduling…] – she did have an incredibly beautiful collection of photos with lens flares, though…) were my second experience with conspiracy theorists (my first was the moon hoaxers [I’m still in love with Buzz Aldrin – he knows how to debunk someone. Best video ever.] and after planet X I came here and did the whole 9/11 thing).

    Tyche is a hypothetical planet 4 times the mass of Jupiter which might be hanging out in the Oort cloud, but there are things at least 1500 km in diameter (they aren’t necessarily spherical, though) in the Kuiper belt. Basically, there a little bit of stuff we know about out there and a whole bunch we don’t and none of the hypotheses have been tested very well so far. As Gene said, if something big got directed into the inner system (and the Chixulub impactor [that did for the dinosaurs {probably}] was only 10 miles in diameter – lots of things that size or bigger in the Kuiper belt and even more in the Oort cloud) on a collision course, by the time that it got bright enough that anyone would notice it there would be no way to affect its orbit in time. The odds of this happening are extremely small, by the way.

    *this always makes me think of Buckaroo Banzi:

    “Where are we going?”

    “Planet 10”


    “Real soon”

    By the way, entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system (or the randomness). A room with all of the oxygen molecules in one half and none in the other would have very low entropy, one with them evenly distributed would have high entropy. In systems near equilibrium, entropy always increases, but certain processes* (like evolution, as I understand it) can be thought of as decreasing entropy – I don’t really understand this (I’m better if I can pivot to mathematical entropy and information theory), but I like what I know of Prigogine’s work along these lines (which won him the Nobel prize…).

    If you could let me know when your eyes glazed over, it would help me calibrate – thanks.

    * far from equilibrium.

    I’m certain that I’ve either answered your question or made you wish you’d never asked it, but if you have any more questions, feel free to ask… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. As someone who shares Henman’s prowess in physics, I can’t get into any of the discussion about trajectories, and I wouldn’t know the difference between a gravity tractor and a combine (they’re both made by International Harvester, right?). So I gotta go with my gut on this one and endorse the suggestion that we try this out on something that has no chance of destroying every living thing if we screw up.

  11. Gene, yes, those comets are sneaky. “Watch the skies, keep watching the skies.”

  12. Slartibartfast, wouldn’t entropy account for the disruptions? Please tell me you’re not talking about the brown dwarf companion to the sun that’s coming to destroy Earth in 2012 in which case we should start the party now? ๐Ÿ™‚ You I might take seriously as opposed to the crazy people on the intertubes; man, they’re just not going to be happy unless the Earth is destroyed by something, anything in 2012,

  13. Gene,

    Also, there may be something relatively big and still unknown in the Kuiper belt knocking comets into the inner system. I’m guessing that if they’re talking about hitting an asteroid in 2015 to make it miss in 2036 that we’re talking about weak orbital boundaries and that it literally takes years to leverage the kind of taps that we can manage. A previously unknown comet on a collision course is something that we wont be able to do a thing about for centuries in all likelihood (except, as you suggest, party down).

  14. lottakatz,

    The asteroid that gets us will probably be a comet because they usually have a really low albedo until they get close enough to the Sun to start off-gassing, by the time we see a planet killer, it would most certainly be too late to do anything but party down.

  15. I have read that the asteroid that gets us will probably be the one we never see coming. There are efforts to find and map the path of asteroids that are heading our way at a distance but that is an imperfect science at best. We just found the first Trojan asteroid that orbits the the sun along with Earth. Even if we can find and map everything in the asteroid belt and everything coming our way today the solar system is a dynamic system.

    Orbits get perturbed, things wander in from elsewhere like the Oort cloud.
    This experiment is a good one in the respect that if its possible to change an orbit of one of these things (on a direct enough approach to Earth to be a problem) with brute force, using whatever we have available to throw at it, if we need to on short notice then knowing that is a good thing to know. If it isn’t possible that’s good to know too.

    I welcome and send greetings to our small Trojan companion. Cigars for all ๐Ÿ™‚


    On Wednesday, JPL reported that NASAโ€™s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer โ€“WISE โ€“ discovered the first known โ€˜Trojanโ€™ asteroid orbiting the sun along with the Earth.

    Relatively small in size, Trojan asteroids share a planetโ€™s orbit by leading or following and therefore never colliding with the planet. Neptune, Mars, and Jupiter have Trojan asteroid partners, and scientists have long believed that Earth also trailed or escorted such space chunks

  16. geeba geeba

    in 77 rocky won the oscar for best movie

    the bar for oscar nomination is something you could trip over.

    i’m hoping they miss the asteroid entirely.

  17. I was thinking of a padded room with a flatscreen behind security glass. And maybe one of those huggy-huggy jackets…

  18. Slartibartfast,

    If you do ever decide to watch The Core, might I suggest keeping all pointy objects out of your reach to discourage any temptation you might have to blind yourself.

  19. Gene,

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen the Core (but I read a review on a site that ranked it the worst movie physics ever), but a trip to the molten core of the Earth is far outside the sum total of human experience while space stations and visiting asteroids are not (or not by much). While I’m sure that I would be aghast at The Core, I’m betting it would be nothing like the rage I felt about the space station scene or the hairy asteroid (just to mention a couple of things that made my blood boil) in Armageddon. You’re absolutely right about Pele, though…

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