'Asteroids': Lost on space Science: Hollywood gets a lot of things wrong in the TV film 'Asteroid,' says astronomer Alex Storrs. The truth, he says, makes a really scary story.

February 15, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Astronomer Alex Storrs has a private nightmare about meteors that is far more likely, and terrifying, than anything NBC manages to put on the screen in the upcoming disaster movie "Asteroid."

In fact, the science of Earth-threatening space rocks is so colorful, and so scary, that one wonders why the producers of this TV movie (airing Sunday and Monday) got so much of it wrong.

Mountain-sized asteroids big enough to end civilization -- like the monster drifting toward Earth in the movie -- occur once in 500,000 years, scientists say.

But recently declassified research revealed that Earth is under monthly bombardment from streaking boulders tens of feet across. Most vaporize in the atmosphere in blasts with the explosive equivalent of nuclear bombs.

"Most of them hit over water and aren't noticed," Storrs said. But some explode over land, like the 1908 airburst near Tunguska, in Siberia, which leveled 800 square miles of forest. Others have struck off South Africa (in 1963) and the Marshall Islands (in 1994).

"What if one of them lands in New Delhi, and India thinks Pakistan is staging a [nuclear] attack, and retaliates on Pakistan?" he said. What if one struck over South Korea, or Israel, or some other international trip-wire?

Dr. Storrs screened the NBC movie this week at the Space Telescope Science Institute, where he has been a support scientist for five years. His own research has focused on Vesta, a 243-mile-wide asteroid circling the sun in the "Main Belt" between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

It's the asteroids that have strayed from the Main Belt, and now vTC cross Earth's orbit, that pose a threat. Astronomers estimate there are 1,000 to 2,000 of these "Earth-crossing" objects out there. But only about 100 have been found.

The fact is, only a handful of scientists are looking for them. In 1994, a house-sized asteroid was spotted only a day before it passed 65,000 miles from Earth. Such near-misses may happen unnoticed several times a week.

"Asteroid's" screenwriters ignored these real threats and invented a bogus one. In the movie, a passing comet named "Fletcher" dislodges two Main Belt asteroids and sends them hurtling toward Earth.

Our heroine, astronomer Lily McKee, spots the problem from her telescopic perch at the (fictional) National Observatory in Boulder, Colo. She alerts the feds, and ...

Cut!

"A comet's mass is way too small to deflect any asteroids' orbits," Storrs said. Comets are made of water ice, dust and frozen gases. Asteroids are made mostly of iron and nickel, or rock.

"The pity of it is, they could have just had the comet's nucleus split," he said. It happens often. Comet Shoemaker-Levy broke into at least 21 pieces. They crashed into Jupiter in a spectacular bombardment in July 1994.

But then NBC would have had to call the movie "Comet Fragment." Or maybe "Dirty Ice Ball."

The movie's soundtrack gives the asteroids a deep, woofer-rattling rumble as they roll by the camera. In space, of course, there can be no sound because there is no air to carry it.

Storrs also quibbles with the set designers' concept of what a big-time observatory looks like. Serious observatories are built in dark, remote places, not a city like Boulder.

Worse, Storrs said, "they've got all the lights on!" The movie version is spotlighted like a Holiday Inn, with even its name in lights. Inside, it's neat, lighted like a business office, and appears to be heated.

Real observatories are dark, cluttered with gear, and open to the sky to minimize air currents that can distort the view. NBC should have had McKee and her colleagues working in eerie cold and darkness, in a tangle of instruments, illuminated only by computer screens and flashlights.

Inexplicably, McKee observes the asteroids' approach both in daylight and at night. Even if asteroids could be seen in daylight, that would put this one on two sides of the planet at once.

In the movie, the Air Force attempts to vaporize the asteroid by arming three fighter planes with top-secret laser weapons.

"I don't think radiation is feasible" as an asteroid-killer, Storrs said.

He figures the movie asteroid is still 2.5 million miles away at that point. The laser beams would have to penetrate the atmosphere, traverse 2.5 million miles of space, and still deliver enough energy to melt a mountain of iron or rock.

"Think of a blast furnace big enough to hold a four-mile asteroid," he said. The TV writers somehow pack all that energy into three weapons the size of upright vacuum cleaners.

Real scientists figure it would take nuclear weapons to destroy or deflect a threatening asteroid. Others would land rockets and nudge the things off course.

The lasers only bust up the asteroid, and in a few hours the pieces begin to rain down on Dallas. But the bombardment looks more like an attack by artillery, or cruise missiles.

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