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Fact, Fiction, or Future: Deep Impact

“Well look on the bright side...we’ll all have high schools named after us.” -Andrea Baker, Deep Impact

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Fact, Fiction, or Future: Deep Impact

“Well look on the bright side...we’ll all have high schools named after us.” -Andrea Baker, Deep Impact

Introduction

Have you ever attended an old fashioned shooting gallery? A staple of old time films and popular novels, this type of entertainment was a popular attraction at most carnivals. At the booth, a rifle is fired to destroy targets at various distances in a variety of shapes. Sometimes the targets move; especially hard to hit, these garner a great deal of satisfaction when successfully taken down. This is all good, clean fun, but did you realize that the earth itself is a target in the middle of a gigantic shooting gallery? Our planet is but one of countless asteroids, comets, moons, and other heavenly objects. Though the earth possesses only one moon, many other objects also inhabit its surrounding space. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), “as of 2016, the number of discovered near-Earth asteroids totaled more than 15,000” (Talbert, “Planetary Defense Frequently Asked Questions”). Earth is literally hanging in space surrounded by thousands of tiny bullets zipping past it. Sadly, some of these bullets are not so tiny. They possess power to cause significant destruction and catastrophe if they ever impacted earth.

Popularized by films such as Bruce Willis action flick Armageddon and more recently in the CBS television series Salvation, this scenario is a serious concern for several astronomers. My personal film favorite is the disaster story Deep Impact, released the same year as Armageddon. While Armageddon and Deep Impact had basically the same plot, a massive asteroid/comet coming to destroy the earth, the former did not really concern itself with reality. Its science is so bad it makes my head hurt.  Deep Impact is noteworthy due to its adherence to known scientific research...to an extent.

For the purpose of this article, the backdrop will be the scenario presented by Deep Impact and the actions in real life the earth might take if such a threat occurred. The situation is as follows: a massive comet the size of Manhattan is heading towards the earth. It is just over a year away from impacting the planet and extinguishing all forms of life. However, before we talk about this comet, we need to take a brief look at another fictional planet killer: the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs.

Death to Dino

Many scientists who believe in the theory of evolution hold that an asteroid impacted the earth several million years ago and destroyed all the dinosaurs. This is supposedly why we don’t see them today other than fossils. However, the Biblical account of Genesis  records that the earth is 1). not millions of years old and 2). the only catastrophe to occur was that of the global flood. Genesis 7:21 records, “And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man.” This was one of the most significant and destructive events in the earth’s history, reducing the entire population down to eight people and a few thousand animals. God’s wrath was poured out on the world in a way that won’t be seen again till the final judgement. Even though an asteroid wasn’t to blame, the destructive force of the flood was just a powerful. Does the Bible ever mention asteroids? As a matter of fact, yes! But more on this later.

A Media Problem

Courtesy of The Ace Black Blog

One of the key factors in Deep Impact is the role of the media. In the film, the knowledge that the earth will be destroyed in a year is kept hidden from the general populace by the government. However, the coverup is accidently exposed by an investigative journalist pursuing a completely different story. How realistic is this? Not very. For the film, the comet is first discovered by a high school boy and one of his professors. In real life, there are thousands of astronomers that keep a close watch on the stars as their profession. It is simply not possible for such a massive object, even though far away, to be hidden from the entire scientific community under any circumstances. This also applies to the spacecraft, Messiah, being built in orbit by a American/Russian alliance to stop the comet. Completely impossible (McKinnon and Misra, “A Scientist Responds...To Deep Impact”). This is probably one of the biggest errors of the entire film; it is also one of the most subtle.

However, the film does do a good job revealing how much the news media is involved in major disasters. As it is often the first outlook many people see, reporters and news stations can give either comfort or terror. Media shapes how people view an event for better or worse. In a real life scenario, the media and other news outlets would play an integral part in world response. An important role would be placed on televised speeches by scientists and world leaders seeking to both keep the populace calm and explain solutions. The film does this very well, with significant emphasis being placed on the speeches of President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman). But words can only go so far. If a comet capable of ending all life were indeed headed our direction, could we actually do anything about it?

Stopping Armageddon

We have a year before a comet the size of Manhattan makes landfall. So how do we stop it? In the film, the world institutes a twofold plan to prevent widespread catastrophe. First, it sends a team of astronauts to destroy the comet using modified nuclear bombs. The team uses a specially designed spacecraft built in orbit called the Messiah to reach the comet and plant the explosives. The Messiah is easily one of the most realistic spacecraft ever shown on film.

Courtesy of Gizmodo

To reach the comet, it uses a nuclear engine system called Orion. This is actually based on a real design known as NERVA, an engine built and tested in the latter days of the Cold War. “It used reactor fuel rods surrounded by a neutron reflector” (Chung, “Engine List”). The fuel was either liquid hydrogen or liquid nitrogen. Sadly, “its thrust to weight ratio is less than one, so no lift-offs with this rocket” (Chung, “Engine List”). However, since the Messiah was built in space, much like the International Space Station, it would only be subject to near vacuum conditions not an atmosphere. This would allow for incredible efficiency as well as speed.

Once the Messiah reached the comet, the front section detached and used harpoon cables to attach to the comet's surface. Amazingly, this has actually been done in real life! “The European Space Agency's Philae lander touched down on Comet 67P (as scientists call it) in Nov. 12, 2014” (Howell, “Philae Lander's Grave on Comet Found at Last After Nearly 2-Year Search”). The lander was armed with harpoon guns and cables designed to bolt Philae to the comet’s rocky surface, exactly as the film portrays. In fact, the cables on the lander failed to deploy leading to the first soft landing on a comet in history. Close call, folks!

After detaching, the Orion engine module stays near the outside of the comet. This is a good idea because if the Messiah’s main engine is destroyed the crew can’t go back to earth. The team of astronauts then uses a specially built platform to transverse the surface of the comet and plant the bombs. Remember, the comet doesn’t generate almost any gravity so being tethered down is a must. Sadly, another problem is the nuclear bombs just won’t cut it.

Nuclear and Hydrogen devices get much of their destructive power by being in an atmosphere. In space, where the comet is, there is no air; it is a vacuum. A nuclear bomb detonated in space will generate a massive amount of local radiation but that’s about it. Even if the bomb could break the comet apart, as shown in the film, momentum would still carry the pieces towards earth (which is what happens). So instead of one comet, we now have hundreds of pieces of rock and ice barrelling towards us. Not the best situation. So how do you stop a comet? Best answer...you move it.

No way, might be the first response. How could we move a comet the size of New York City away from earth’s rotational path? It is actually surprisingly simple...if you have the time. To move a large comet or asteroid out of the path of earth, you could use a small spacecraft called a gravity tractor. “A gravity tractor device would fly alongside the asteroid for a long period of time (years to decades) and slowly pull it out of Earth’s path” (“Gravity Tractor”). Since small objects actually do generate a tiny gravitational pull, you could send a small space vehicle and use it to move a larger comet. This works because, again, space has no atmosphere to slow an object down; even tiny amounts of force over a long period of time can cause huge path changes. The same principle is what drives the Messiah, zero friction. However, our scenario does not allow this much time. Are we all doomed? Nope, we have a secret weapon.

Ace in the Hole

The answer to the problem was actually created back in the Cold War. However, unless the world was really going to end, it would never be used. Why? It uses nuclear bomblets to propel a massive amount of mass through space. It is called Project Orion (no relation to the engine used in the film). The design called for a pusher plate in the back of whatever it was attached to with a hole in the center for the bomblets. With timed detonations every couple of seconds, it could propel the ship or comet pretty much anywhere, even outside the solar system.

Courtesy of Atomic Rockets

This idea was actually tested using conventional explosives here on earth. Needless to say, it works like a charm. “The advanced Orion could carry a payload of 1,300 tons (NOT kilograms) to Enceladus and back!” (Chung, “Project Orion”). However, due to the nature of the engine (nukes) the United States government did not approve of its use. However, in the event of a world ending scenario like our comet, such things would probably be made nill. Since extensive plans have already been made for this device and “Orion drive spacecraft scale up quite easily” (Chung, “Project Orion”), an international alliance could reasonably build a system capable of moving that large of a comet. This would be a last resort option and not without its risks, but the alternative is the death of the human race...or is it?

The Second Half of the Plan

For the film, in case the Messiah was unsuccessful in its mission, a massive tunnel system was dug into the soft limestone in Missouri. This could provide shelter for a million Americans chosen randomly by a national lottery. In the film, this is known as the “ark.” A quick note on the “ark.” In today's academia the Bible and especially the flood are considered fairytales, but many modern films or television series have global flooding and “arks.” A good example is the film 2012, based on the defunct Mayan Calendar prediction. It is interesting that the world that so refuses to believe scripture, tends to borrow ideas from it. Food for thought.

However, in the context of the film, this is not a bad idea. The United States already has massive underground facilities designed to withstand nuclear fallout and other terrible disasters. The Global Seed Vault was built to hold almost every type of plant and seed in existence so these will remain safe and available for after the cataclysm. Animals and other creatures could also be taken into shelters. If the asteroid or comet will crack the planet itself on impact, these don’t work. For the comet in the film, it will cause massive devastation akin to a worldwide nuclear winter, but it will not cause the earth to break apart. After a period of time, once the climate returns to normal people can exit the facilities and begin to repopulate the earth. This would play out similarly to the video game series Fallout, minus the nuclear cars and floating robot butlers. This would not be the happy ending as billions of people worldwide would die. Such an event would be terrible, reminiscent of the destruction caused by the Great Flood of Noah’s Day. On that note, does the Bible have anything to say about asteroids or comets?

Bible Asteroids 101

The book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, details several objects that seem to be asteroids or comets. Revelation 8:8 states “And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood.” An asteroid the size of a mountain coming through the atmosphere would generate tremendous heat and would appear to be on fire. A verse later in Revelation 8:9 details the destruction of a third of the sea creatures and a third of the ships were destroyed by this event. This will not be a small asteroid.

A second example remarkably occurs yet another verse later in Revelation 8:10 . It records “And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters.” Verse 11 continues the narrative and calls the name of the star Wormwood. This is most likely a reference to a comet as it disintegrates and scatters around the globe poisoning a major part of the water supply. Both of these heavenly objects demonstrate the power of God and His intense anger for sin. While God is loving, He is also just and therefore cannot allow sin to stand before Him. At the end of age, these types of judgements will occur ushering in the Lord’s coming reign. However, how does this apply to us now? Do we need to take great concern over a possible catastrophe?

A Comforting Promise

When the flood waters receded, God made a covenant (promise) to Noah and by extension all believers and the human race. Genesis 8:22 records “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” God promised to never destroy the earth again with a flood, but He also promised it would remain in the same condition as it was after the flood. Due to this promise, it is logical to assume that the earth will never be destroyed or significantly altered by something like a comet.

Does this somehow stop natural disasters? No, but it does prevent anything that could completely annihilate the earth or drastically alter its living conditions. Until the Lord Jesus returns, we have His promise that the earth will remain. In the meantime, freed from such worries, we need to be spreading His message and His comfort to the rest of world.

 

Works Consulted

Talbert, Tricia. “Planetary Defense Frequently Asked Questions.” Www.nasa.gov, NASA, 29 Aug. 2017.

Chung, Winchell. “Engine List.” Www.projectrho.com, 1 Jan. 2018.

Howell, Elizabeth. “Philae Lander's Grave on Comet Found at Last After Nearly 2-Year Search.” Www.space.com, 5 Sept. 2016.

“Gravity Tractor.” Edited by Dennis Bonella, Www.nasa.gov, NASA, 7 Aug. 2017.

Chung, Winchell. “Project Orion.” Www.projectrho.com, 1 Jan. 2018.

McKinnon, Mika, and Ria Misra. “A Scientist Responds...To Deep Impact.” io9.Gizmodo.com, Gizmodo Media Group, 6 Oct. 2015.

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Robert Ring

RJ is a blog writer for Camp Infinity and a student at Bob Jones University majoring in engineering. He loves considering the science and technology claims of science fiction stories. He also loves reading. Throughout his life he has been a dreamer, imagining a never ending series of what ifs and maybes. From a young age, God gave him a passion for learning all he could about the world around him.

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RJ is a blog writer for Camp Infinity and a student at Bob Jones University majoring in engineering. He loves considering the science and technology claims of science fiction stories. He also loves reading. Throughout his life he has been a dreamer, imagining a never ending series of what ifs and maybes. From a young age, God gave him a passion for learning all he could about the world around him.

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