Rice/HMNS Production Shows What Would Happen If A Comet Hits Near Houston

April 23, 2009

In 1994, the world watched as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 split into 22 pieces and smacked into Jupiter’s atmosphere, leaving bruises easily seen through low-powered telescopes. 


What if such a comet were to hit Earth? How dangerous is Earth’s neighborhood? What can be done to prepare?


“Impact Earth,” the latest collaboration between the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) and Rice University, will attempt to answer these questions when the Burke Baker Planetarium premieres the show May 1, with a worldwide release to follow. The joint production was made possible by funding from NASA Earth Science.


Millions of asteroids and comets lurk among the planets, leftover bits and pieces from the solar system’s formation more than 4 ½ billion years ago. Tom Jones, a planetary scientist and four-time space shuttle astronaut, guides the exploration of these cosmic wayfarers in the film to discover the roles they’ve played in the past and how they could affect the future in space and on Earth. 


“There have been Hollywood movies about comets and asteroids hitting Earth, like ‘Deep Impact’ and ‘Armageddon,’ but they were not fully scientific in their explanations and animations,” said Carolyn Sumners, vice president of astronomy and physics at the museum and an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at Rice. 


Patricia Reiff, director of the Rice Space Institute and producer of “Impact Earth,” added, “Our program has been vetted by numerous experts on asteroids, and even though they don’t often agree with each other, they all agree with us.” 


“Impact Earth” explores major impacts in Earth’s history and recreates a meteorite fall on the Great Plains 10,000 years ago. The movie also describes the explosive event in Siberia’s Tunguska region in 1908 and the impact that contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The production takes viewers to visit asteroid hunters at the museum’s George Observatory to see how they locate asteroids that might pose a threat to the planet.


One such space rock is already raising concerns. On Friday, April 13, 2029, the asteroid Apophis will come within 18,000 miles of the Earth – closer than the geostationary satellites that monitor the weather and carry television signals. The impact of an asteroid the size of Apophis could wipe out a city or cause a devastating tsunami. 

Comets from the outer solar system also threaten the planets, but encounters are less common. In the finale of “Impact Earth,” viewers will witness such a devastating collision in the upper Gulf of Mexico and the catastrophic effect on Houston and on all life on Earth.


 “Because we have so much to lose, we must step up our search for comets and asteroids,” Jones said. “We can find and track them, even use our space technology to shift their orbits. What we still lack, and must find, is the will to act together to ensure our survival.”


This program is the latest in a Rice University-HMNS collaboration funded by NASA’s Office of Earth Science which began with the creation of the first digital immersive theater in the United States in 1998. The collaboration also introduced the first portable digital immersive theater, the Discovery Dome, in 2003. For tickets, visit http://www.hmns.org/ or call 713-639-4629.



InstantNewsWestu Staff

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