Like you, I thought asteroid impacts were the stuff of movies. They were an abstraction I figured, products of an overly imaginative screenwriter…and then I met Ed Beshore. Ed’s a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Lab in Tucson, Arizona. It’s his job to find those asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth. How many has he found?
“When I started doing this job there were only about 170,000 asteroids known and now there’s over 400,000,” he told me. Four hundred thousand? The crew and I spent the night up at the frigid summit of Sacramento Peak as Ed scanned the skies looking for asteroids. He’s fulfilling a Congressional mandate to locate and catalogue every asteroid a kilometer across or bigger that’s within 30 million miles of our planet. So far they’ve found about a thousand of these huge rocks and luckily none of them appear to be on a collision course with Earth. However, in looking for these Ed and his team find a lot of smaller asteroids that might still pose a problem.
“It can be sobering,” he said. “I do recall the first time I actually started working here it showed me all the asteroids that were flying around and it really brought home the fact that space is full of asteroids.”
Earth in fact sits in the middle of a cosmic shooting gallery. I’m paraphrasing a great book by Phil Plait on everything in the cosmos that can kill us, but it’s true. Everyday this planet is pelted with up to 20 tons of stuff falling in from the supposed vacuum of space. Most of this so-called stuff is small, but sometimes big rocks come roaring in. We’ve all heard of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It actually may have been a pair of giant space rocks since the discovery of a massive crater in the Indian Ocean from about the same time period. Some of you may have heard about the impact in a remote region of Siberia called Tunguska that happened in 1908. So what’s in store for the future? More impacts…a lot more impacts.
It’s a certainty that Earth will again be on the receiving end of a cosmic reaming. In fact, it’s a threat that we’re only now beginning to take seriously. Back in the 90’s Congress mandated that we find all space rocks a kilometer wide or bigger. They recently asked that we find all that are a 100 meters wide or bigger. The National Academy of Sciences just released a report saying that we in fact do need to find these rocks because it will take years, if not decades to come up with and implement a plan of attack. However, the bad news is there isn’t the money to fund a census of all the big rocks that can hit us and maybe cause widespread destruction.
So that leaves us with Ed and the skeleton crew working to scan the sky for errant asteroids, which is good, but not good enough.
“There aren’t very many people on the planet doing this job and it really is quite sobering to think that you as an individual are one of the people actually looking out for the planet.” Ed told me at the telescope. “We may find one day that there is something dangerous that we do have to respond to, not only as a nation, but as an entire planet and it could be one of the discoveries that we make right here.”
TO THE EXTREMES
Sometimes astronomy just sucks.
I’m not saying that, Mike Brown is. Mike’s a world renowned astronomer and we’re standing on the gangway perched on the Mount Palomar Observatory, watching the fog roll in.
“This is not looking good,” he says, peering up into the cottony soup that’s parked itself over the observatory. “And it’s not like I can come back tomorrow.”
Tonight is Brown’s only opportunity to observe a dwarf planet four billion miles away called Haumea. If he doesn’t see it tonight, he can’t come back tomorrow to try again. There’s a long list of astronomers waiting to use really big telescopes like the 200-inch monster at Palomar and if you get skunked, too bad. Reapply for time and come back next year. That’s astronomy, which is why it sometimes sucks.
“You get used to this kind of thing,” Mike says. “Only rarely do things really go your way. If it’s not the weather that’s a problem, then there’s some technical problem that’s standing in your way.”
From a production standpoint this was an issue. You don’t want to go somewhere and spend a lot of time filming something for which there’s no pay-off. We wanted action. We wanted the doors to the observatory swinging open. We wanted Brown and his team speaking astronomy and using lingo that none of us would understand. We wanted to see Haumea on the computer screen and for Brown to tell us at the end of the night just what he saw and learned about the distant object. Instead, it looked like all we were going to get was a good cup of coffee.
“I always bring my own special ground,” Brown says. “Do you all want some?”
By 10 p.m. the fog was beginning to break just enough for Brown to open the observatory’s doors. As any astronomer knows, you can just open up an observatory and start looking at the universe. You have to give the telescope a good hour or two to get to temperature. That means giving the telescope time to get to the same temperature of the air. Once that was done, Brown swung the telescope and pointed it to where Haumea was and started looking. He took a series of photos and within a few minutes images started appearing on the screen. They were photos of a fuzzy gray orb. Mike just stared at them.
“We’re sunk,” he said sitting back in his chair.
There was still too much moisture and fog in the air to get a clear view of Haumea and beside, this distant object was due to set soon, so Brown’s and our night at the telescope was over. “That’s astronomy,” Mike said as we packed our gear. “Late nights and lots of a problems, that’s what it’s usually about.”
Sounds like making a TV show. At least he serves up better coffee.
There’s a place along the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island where a river of lava flowing down from a steep escarpment dumps into the sea. The scene is otherworldly. For miles there’s nothing but hardened black lava flows, steaming fumaroles and enormous clouds of steam billowing up from the ocean.
We’re here with Rosaly Lopes of the Jet Propulsions Laboratory and according to the Hawaiian sound tech working with us, we’re to close to the action…. way to close. We’re standing on a cracked shelf of hard lava, less than a hundred yards from a river of lava that pouring into the sea. Rosaly wanted to take us here because It’s here that she’s made some important insights into volcanoes here on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system.
“Volcanism is one of the most fundamental processes in the solar system. That's how planets lose heat,” she said, as hot lava exploded in the water. “So when you're looking at the flow here you're imagining the flows on Venus, on Mars, on Io and even the uh cryovolcanic flows on places like Enceladus and Titan what would they be like?”
Volcanoes are everywhere. We see them here on Earth, on Venus, Mars, even on distant moons like Jupiter’s Io. And what’s interesting is that the processes that drive volcanism in all these places are the same. The only difference is their size.
Of all the worlds in our solar system with volcanoes, Earth’s are about the smallest. Venus has enormous volcanoes because every 500 million years or so, the planet goes ballistic and literally eats itself. Mars has volcanoes that are many times the size of Earth’s largest mountains. And Io, a moon around Jupiter that’s about a fifth the size of Earth, is the most volcanically active place in the solar system. It has volcanoes with calderas that are hundreds of miles across.
“Standing here, it’s not at all hard to imagine what’s going on out there on place like Io,” Rosaly said. “I imagine that if were there right now, we’d see something very similar to this, just a lot, lot bigger.”
It’s hard to imagine an eruption bigger than what we’re looking at right now. This lava field extends for miles in every direction. In fact, driving in to the location you see that it once inundated a town. There are stop signs and cars buried in hard lava. Kilauea’s been erupting for years and traveling over the mountain you see all the various calderas and lava floes. This is the most recent flow and you can see gasses rising from cracks in the shiny black surface.
Rosaly and I are actually looking at them. To see how hot it is I put the heel of my hiking boot near the vent and it starts to melt. The amount of heat actually surprised me until Rosaly told me where I was standing.
“You’re right on top of a lava tube,” she says.
“A lava tube?”
“Yes,” she says. “There’s hot lava right under us.”
“Is that dangerous?”
“Only if the ground is cracked and you’re near the ocean,” she tells me.
“Isn’t that where we are?”
Archaeoastronomy is one of those sciences in which there are few true practitioners. They’re about as numerous as paleobotonists and ecophysiologists. Archaeoastronomy is just not one of those sciences people gravitate toward. Have you ever heard a kid, a normal kid, say they want to be an archaeoastronomer when they grow up? No. Archaeoastronomy is one of those sciences that finds you. And some of them are kind of hoity-toity.
There was the one archaeoastronomer who agreed to speak with us on camera if we first, bought and read his two hundred-dollar book and then paid him a thousand dollars per day of shooting. There were the archaeoastronomers that were “simply too busy” to talk. Busy with what? And then there were those who seemed to have spent a little too much time alone in the library, meaning they didn’t really relate all that well with the living. Thankfully, we did manage to find a few that were engaging and could tell us about the special relationship our ancestors had with the skies.
Listening to them, you realize that our history as a species is, quite literally, written in the stars. Look around you. Everything you see, every little luxury you enjoy is the product of astronomy. Don’t believe me? Well, consider this. If our ancestors hadn’t looked up and wondered at the stars, there might not be civilization. You watch the stars and you know when to plant crops. Planting crops means you can feed more people, so your population can grow. To understand the cycles of sky, you need math. With math you can make even more detailed observations. And from math you can start to engineer cities and learn more and more about your environment.
Astronomy is the world’s oldest science. The first scientist ever mentioned in history was an astronomer. She was a Babylonian priestess from the Temple of Ishtar who tracked the stars and was said to have the power to predict the future. That was no doubt an ability she attained by watching the stars because for our ancestors watching the skies allowed them to make important predictions, like when the rains were coming or when the environment would turn cold. Way back then, that kind of information made the difference between living and dying.
So that’s some cool, “sciency” stuff. However, we were still left with what to do about the ancient alien theorists. Do we go down that road? Well, we did and I have to say it was all very engaging. However, it wasn’t an easy decision. One producer worried that their reputation would go down the tubes if we discussed this stuff, to which I had to say, “What reputation? You’re a television producer.” This is after all the same line of work that brought the world such programs as “Temptation Island” and “Girls Gone Wild.” Considering that, whatever you do in television, your reputation’s safe. My concern was whether there was any solid science in this theory and it turns out there is. There are some mysteries out there that defy easy explanation. The Dogon, a tribe in northwest Africa, who know about an invisible companion star to the giant Sirius freaked me out. Then there are the alignments that some of the massive buildings erected by the ancients. The Egyptians didn’t just lean four triangles against one another and say “We’re done!” The Great Pyramid is an awe-inspiring feat of engineering even by today’s standards and how they were able to engineer such mathematical precision into this massive stone building isn’t completely understood.
“Decoding the Skies” was no doubt one of the most difficult episodes we produced this season for the simple fact that it took a lot of thinking on how to make this topic work in the context of what the series is about. And I can honestly say there were days spent in front of the computer producing this show when I would have rather been the archaeoastronomer. But that’s because of all this season’s six episodes; this was the hardest.