Breaking Down the Mostly Real Science Behind Don’t Look Up
Do you want a solid, rollicking, good laugh? Contemplate the end of the world—the whole existential shebang: the annihilation of civilization, the extinction of all species, the death of the entire Earthly biomass. Funny, right? Actually, yes—and arch and ironic and dark and smart, at least in the hands of Adam McKay (The Big Short ViceThe new movie is titled “The Friend,” Don’t Look UpThe film was made available in theatres and streaming will start on Netflix on December 24.
The film’s premise is equally broad, plausible and terrifying. The comet can measure up to 9km (5.6 miles). Kate Dibiasky, a Ph.D. candidate (Jennifer Lawrence), discovered a comet measuring up to 9 km (5.6 mi.) across while conducting routine telescopic surveying for supernovae. Kudos and back-slaps from her colleagues follow—find a comet, after all, and you get to give it your name. But the good times stop when her adviser, Dr. Randall Mindy ((Leonardo DiCaprio), crunches the trajectory numbers and determines that Comet Dibiasky—which is about the same size as the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago—is on course to collide with Earth in a planet-killing crack-up exactly six months and 14 days later.
Mindy and Dibiasky raise the issue to the attention President Orlean’s (Meryl Steep), and Jason, her son-in-law and chief of staff (Jonah Hill)
“I hear there’s a comet or an asteroid you don’t like the look of,” says Orlean, who is preoccupied with the upcoming midterms and her most recent Supreme Court nominee, who turns out to have been a former soft-core porn star. “What’s the ask here?”
“I’m so booored,” moans Jason, as Dr. Mindy tries to explain the science.
Rejected by the White House the astronomers appeal to an morning cable TV show. The Daily Rip, but can’t get their message heard through the hosts’ incessant happy talk. With equal parts conspiracy muttering, denial, and meme-making, the public declares Dibiasky insane, Dr. Mindy an AILF and A for Astrologer. ILF stands for Illusionary Leader. ILF. The president, meantime, is persuaded by Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a Jobsian-Muskian-Zuckerbergian head of a technology company named Bash, that there is money to be made mining the comet for precious metals, distracting her from the more pressing business of just blowing the thing up.
For the planet and all life on it, the clock is ticking and there are mortal decisions to be made—decisions a frivolous, fractious, distracted humanity does not appear up to handling. An undercurrent of grimness is evident in the story. It could have pulled it apart completely if not for the final, hilariously ridiculous scene. But the grim is there all the same—and that is very much the filmmakers’ apparent intent.
What real scientists do to monitor dangers in the sky
Don’t Look UpThis is often being seen as a metaphor for climate change. There has been the same deliberation, delay and politicization about a binary, simple issue, which prevents the world from taking any action. A strike from space is death by gunshot while climate change is a slow, global poisoning, but the result—the end of days—is the same. The key solutions for climate change are well-known by now—switching over from fossil fuels to clean renewables and retrofitting cities and other vulnerable places for the floods, wildfires, hurricanes and more that are increasingly resulting from the warming already baked into the system. It’s long-term planetary therapy as opposed to a fast cure. The solutions to the threat of incoming ordnance from space are less commonly discussed but could be equally and—more important, immediately—effective.
NASA. Don’t Look UpIt already has an amazing name Planetary Defense Coordination OfficeThe PDCO’s mission is to search the sky to find and catalog potentially dangerous space rocks, long before they reach Earth. They also help coordinate a government response by either deflecting the object or destroying it. Comets are a case in point. There may not be much time left to defend the object. Agglomerations of ice and rock that come barrelling towards us from beyond the orbit of Pluto, comets whip around the sun and then fly back out—moving at speeds that can top 70 km/sec (156,000 mph). They become invisible once they reach the orbit of Jupiter. There, the outflowing solar energy ignites their tails and makes them visible. The six-months it takes for the entire world to react depends on the size and shape of the comet. Don’t Look UpThis isn’t a mistake. Asteroids—which have little ice, no tails, and are not much more than space rubble—ply a smaller, less sweeping path around the sun and move more slowly than a comet. A rock that was discovered today might not intersect with the orbit of Earth—and threaten the planet—for a century.
“Our strategy is to find the population of objects out there of significant size, so we know where they all are,” says NASA’s planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson, who vetted an early draft of the Don’t Look UpScreenplay written more than two decades ago “Once we do that, it will give us decades of warning and we will then have the time to use whatever technology is available.”
When it comes to asteroids, just what constitutes “significant size” is something of a judgment call. 2013.Asteroid 20m (66ft) was seen exploding in the sky above Chelyabinsk.The atmosphere’s drag effectively ripped the rock apart, before it reached the ground. The blast damaged 7,200 buildings and injured about 1,500 people—though claimed no lives. It was terrifying, but it was manageable. The asteroids that concern the PDCO most—and get the majority of their attention—are those measuring 140 meters or more.
“You work out the numbers from a sort of actuarial point of view,” says Amy Mainzer, professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona and a consultant on the film. “And 140 meters was the threshold that can cause a lot of damage.”
It’s not just size that makes a space rock a menace. It’s location, too. For a sufficiently large projectile to go from what NASA straightforwardly calls a near-Earth object (NEO) to a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA) it must also intersect Earth’s orbit no further than 7.5 million km (4.65 million mi.) The planet. That’s a whole lot of acreage by any common measure, but on the cosmic scale it’s a relatively near miss. NASA and other astronomers around the globe have discovered 90% to 95%, or about 1,000, of the NEOs. Congress first allocated the funds in 1998. But only 30% to 40% of the estimated 250,000 asteroids that may be zipping about are larger than 140 meters.
“It’s a really hard problem because the objects are small,” says Mainzer. “I mean, well, in astronomy terms they’re small. If one hits the Earth, it’s big.”
How can we actually save the Earth from an object which is hurling at it
Another matter is what to do with an asteroid/comet that has sufficiently large size and is heading toward our planet. Nobody is really going to break up and mine the object—that plot turn was a cinematic confection for Don’t Look Up—especially a comet that gives Earth not years or decades to prepare, but months. Destroying it with explosives—and yes, even nuclear ones—is not off of the menu of options if time was short and the object was huge. This would create problems because the huge rock wouldn’t be evaporated, it would instead be broken into smaller pieces.
“It’s hard to predict where all of those pieces are going,” says Johnson, “and it’s difficult to make sure that you’ve broken it into pieces small enough that Earth’s atmosphere can deal with it.” Still, if it’s duck a lot of small objects or go the way of life on Earth after the great collision 65 million years ago, there’s little doubt what humanity would do. “The dinosaurs,” says Johnson, “didn’t have a space program.”
Asteroids, which give us much more time to act, could be dealt with not by destruction, but deflection—slowing them down or altering their path just enough that they fly wide of Earth. NASA launched the ISS on November 24, 2021. Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) This spacecraft will try to show that the concept is possible. It is designed to target an asteroid. Didymos (which poses no threat to Earth), a 780-meter rock that circles the sun in a path that takes it from just outside Earth’s orbit to just outside Mars’s. Didymos orbits a moonlet of 160 meters named Dimorphos. DART, when it arrives in the Didymos space system will intentionally crash into Dimorphos. The scientists then will be able to determine how fast and which direction its orbit has changed relative to its parent.
It’s a small test on a small rock and does not mean the Earth is anywhere near having a robust planetary defense system in place, but as a proof-of-concept experiment showing that deflection can work, it’s an important first step. NASA will also be launching the Asteroids Search Mission to find other asteroids, which could pose a danger to Earth. Near Earth Object SurveyorSpacecraft will be flying in orbit in 2026 and scanning the sky for any suspicious activity. While none of these solutions are perfect, they all can help.
While climate change is caused by human activity, planetary bombardment simply represents the risk that we live in an overcrowded, noisy solar system. But like climate change, it is a problem we can mitigate—and even solve, provided we decide to take the necessary steps. In Hollywood’s latest yarn of the apocalypse, humanity plays dice with its very existence. The world outside the screen allows us to choose different.