Some of the media will report accurately, while others will convey misinformation. However, this attention provides us all opportunities to tell the NEO story, and we should be prepared to speak to local reporters and TV journalists to take advantage of the public interest. This flood of media activity presents us with an opportunity for telling the public about impacts that is unique since the great comet crash week of July 16, 1994.
There are four media events that I know of in the next month. This week The New Yorker is publishing a feature article on impacts and planetary defense by Timothy Ferris; while I have not yet seen the piece, I am looking forward to reading an article on this subject by one of the best popular science writers in the English language. On February 16 and 17 we will see the widely advertised miniseries "Asteroid" on NBC network television. From preliminary reports (see below) this will be a disaster scientifically, but I am sure it will receive wide attention. Later in the same week the Discovry Channel on cable TV will be showing a two-part documentary titled "Three Minutes till Impact", and they also expect to have a shorter one-hour version for later showing. Finally, the long-awaited National Geographic Special on impacts will be shown on NBC on February 26.
Bill Bottke of Caltech notes that the NBC miniseries "Asteroid" (to be telecast Feb. 16 & 17) now has a webpage (http://www.nbc.com). From that source Botke has copied the following synopsis:.
"When Colorado astronomer Dr. Lily McKee discovers that an approaching comet has dislodged several giant asteroids, propelling them on a crash course with Earth, she sends her 8-year-old son to stay with his grandfather in Dallas, and contacts Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Jack Wallach to help handle the impending crisis. The first major asteroid hits Kansas City -- and Jack, as well as local firemen, including Ben Dodd, works round the clock to evacuate the city and rescue victims. Meanwhile, Lily realizes that an even more devastating fragment of the comet is headed toward Earth. An attempt to divert the asteroid by firing three Airborne Lasers from F-16s creates a hellish meteor shower -- with a dangerously large asteroid headed directly for Dallas."
Bottke adds: As you can see, the story has several major science flaws. The disaster scenario itself appears to be directly lifted from the now infamous movie "Meteor!", which also used a comet collision with an asteroid (in the main belt, of all places) as the mechanism to send asteroid fragments on a collision trajectory with Earth. I don't even want to get into the physical implausibilities related to the idea that a small airborne laser, fired from inside the atmosphere, could deflect (or destroy!) a mountain-sized mass of rock travelling at velocity > 11 km/s from a distance of several tenths of an AU away. If this synopsis is any indication, we are in for a long two nights.
Bottke notes that he "fact" page associated with show is interesting in its own way. It is clear that the writers of the show (or the webpage) have read some of the Spaceguard literature. They have failed, however, to understand many of its conclusions or implications. Following are a few statements from their "facts":
- NASA scientists estimate the chances of dying from a meteor impact as six times greater than dying in a plane crash.
- An asteroid impact large enough to cause global devastation is the only natural disaster capable of destroying earth. However, the chance of this happening in our lifetime is only 1 in 1,000. The odds of a major collision with Earth are estimated to happen once every 300,000 years, but it is a game of 'cosmic darts' -- which means it could happen tomorrow or 100,000 years from now.
- Asteroids of one mile in diameter are big enough to destroy the planet.
- The total number of people actively involved in searching for asteroids is smaller than the staff at a McDonald's restaurant. In December 1995, the federal government began funding a program known as NEAT, for Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking, which has a budget of less than $1 million in annual funding and utilizes an Air Force telescope designed for the survei. . . . . (and much more for those who look at the webpage).