Interesting asteroid strike article

By Phil Plait | May 21, 2008 3:18 pm

I almost called this post "Asteroid strike in The Atlantic" but figured that would panic people. :-) It’s actually The Atlantic magazine. Gregg Easterbrook, a journalist who wrote an article about asteroid impacts, is in a short documentary/interview about how often asteroids hit and what can be done. It’s not bad, despite the nearly 100% inaccurate animations they use. It’s incredible, actually, how nearly every single image they use has nothing to do with asteroids — they show galaxies, nebulae, and so on. The one shot they have of an asteroid moving through space looks more like a comet, and you can see stars drifting past it. Sigh.

What he says is pretty good though. I have a lot more details about the consequences of impacts and what we can do to prevent them in Death from the Skies! of course. Consider this video an apertif.

Tip o’ the Whipple shield to BABloggee Kevin Stebleton.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, DeathfromtheSkies!, Science

Comments (49)

  1. bswift

    Phil, I don’t even think that was a pic of an asteroid…rather, I think it was an animation of the star Mira.

  2. I thought it looked like that as well, but I couldn’t be sure.

  3. Tom

    Check out this image from It shows the results of that impact off of Australia. It’s pretty clear that water washed over that location very quickly at some point heading on a bearing of roughly South by West.,114.113789&spn=0.232294,0.32135&t=k&z=12

  4. Nice, too, that he doesn’t advocate that barmy nuke-the-asteroid idea. Even Centauri Dreams has been toying with that one despite the basic conservation of momentum objections.

    Supernovae are cool, but most of the time there’s something depressing about the human obsession with loud bangs and bright flashes to the exclusion of actual thought.

  5. Notice his pronounciation of “kilometers” (4:20, e.g.) …


  6. Dang, “pronunciation,” not “pronounciation”! (Just read the article on “pronouns” over at Language Log, gotta be an echo or something.)


  7. Crux Australis

    Yeah, that was definitely the same as the animation of Mira from your post.

  8. Fred

    Is all the NASA bashing really fair? If NASA asked congress for billions more dollars to fund an asteroid defence program, they would just get laughed at. With the current anti-science mood and cuts in science funding, it’s surely not NASA’s fault they can’t add defending against asteroids to their mission.

    At 9’05” it looks like they’re using a real asteroid pic…

  9. Crux Australis

    That was indeed annoying, how almost none of the animations shown initially were of asteroids.

  10. BaldApe

    So if we spend gazillions of dollars on asteroid defense and never get hit, it’s a waste.

    Once again, the same technology could be used to harvest metallic asteroids, couldn’t it? Wouldn’t that help justify the cost, if those asteroids contain rare and valuable metals?

    BTW, off topic, what would the effect be to life on the surface of Earth during a magnetic reversal? Is there danger from the solar wind not being deflected?

  11. Ian

    Why did the asteroid impact shown at the beginning cause an Independence Day style expanding flame explosion effect? Maybe the radiation ignited the atmosphere Battlefield Earth-style. Was this a Scientology subliminal propaganda video? Now that I think of it, I did feel an unexplainable urge to buy Dianetics when I saw that explosion…

  12. Tom, you’re in big trouble. That google map also includes the big super duper secret US Naval Communications base that is just outside of the town of Exmouth there at the top right of the peninsula.
    If you zoom in to the northernish coast of the peninsula you can see Ningaloo Reef. One of the best diving and snorkelling locations in the world. Probably better than that other big reef on the east coast of Oz. At the right time of year you can swim with the whale sharks. Huge 9 metre filter feeders. Completely harmless. Awe inspiring when you’re in the water with them and they’re coming straight at you with their 1.5 metre wide mouth open.

  13. Nasikabatrachus

    @ Fred

    The article that the video is based on seems to contradict your hypothesis. From the second page:

    “Actually, Congress has asked NASA to pay more attention to space rocks. In 2005, Congress instructed the agency to mount a sophisticated search of the proximate heavens for asteroids and comets, specifically requesting that NASA locate all near-Earth objects 140 meters or larger that are less than 1.3 astronomical units from the sun—roughly out to the orbit of Mars. Last year, NASA gave Congress its reply: an advanced search of the sort Congress was requesting would cost about $1 billion, and the agency had no intention of diverting funds from existing projects, especially the moon-base initiative.”

  14. Vagrant

    NASA isn’t the right organization to be dealing with asteroid defense. It’s focused on pure science and PR projects (human space flight…) and lacks political protections against budget cuts.

    Asteroid defense should be funded from within the Pentagon or Homeland Security budgets. Keeping rocks from hitting us is very much a defense problem even though the ‘enemy’ is inanimate. It also goes without saying that both the Pentagon and DHS budgets are essentially immune to cutbacks (in the long run) regardless of which party controls congress and the White House.

  15. jbecker

    Has anyone seen the youtube video of the earthquake lights in china? Can anyone explain a theory on how this can occur? Wikipedia doesn’t really go in to specifics. link THERE ARE OTHER VIDEOS OF THE PERUVIAN EARTHQUAKE LIGHTS ON WIKIPEDIA

  16. Celtic_Evolution

    I go way back with Easterbrook, and I have to tell you that I’ve basically stopped reading anything he writes or watching anything he appears in. He’s a blowhard and has been prone to anti-semetic inuendo in some of his writings. He considers himself an expert on just about everything. And he’s never let facts get in the way of a good opinionated story. I’m not a fan.

  17. Crux Australis

    jbecker: Sunlight being refracted through droplets (or ice crystals?) in the clouds. Absolutely nothing to do with an impending earthquake. You should probably stop calling them EARTHQUAKE LIGHTS and you should definitely stop shouting.

  18. Crux Australis

    Just found the link and name I was looking for. They’re called iridescent clouds. Check out for a good description.

  19. Bering Hemmingsol

    gyokusai, lots of folks pronounce kilometer as kill-ah-meter. If you go to Canada, you will rarely hear it pronounced Keelometer. You need to travel more and learn about different cultures and accents instead of making fun of people behind your keyboard. It just makes you look ignorant.

  20. David

    I’m not an astronomer or a seismologist, so you can slap me down for this. Also, I’m not a conspiracey theorist or similar such loon. But on Xmas day 2004 I was walking off dinner at around 10.00 pm UTC when the sky lit up for a split second and I heard an loudish, distant bang. There was no sign of any thunderstorm as I recall.

    I rushed home to tell my wife but she said she didn’t hear anything (home was about 1/2 mile away). Nothing was on the news. A mistake brought on by too much excess on Xmas day. Next day all the news was about the tsunami in Asia.

    When an odd coincidence like that happens to you it is hard not to link the two things in your brain, even given a rudimentary understanding of probability theory, and an otherwise healthy scepticism, etc. I know it was probably a firework or something.

    But … are we sure, sure, sure that the tsunami was triggered by a subduction earthquake and not an asteroid strike? I think the tsunami was triggered shortly before 1 am UTC so I know the times don’t stack up.

    Put me out of my delusion …

  21. Dunc

    Once again, the same technology could be used to harvest metallic asteroids, couldn’t it? Wouldn’t that help justify the cost, if those asteroids contain rare and valuable metals?

    It’s not like iron and nickel are anywhere near expensive enough to justify asteroid mining. Most of the metals commonly found in asteroids are available far more easily right here on Earth. Perhaps if someone were to discover an asteroid made of almost pure tantalum…

  22. JackC

    @gyokusai: Phil’s mind is made up, never mind the facts. Those of us that know that rules of language follow, not precede, language, are lost when personal opinion overrules reference.

    I have no doubt that perhaps, in quite a few years, Phil’s (and others) pronunciation will prevail. As it is, his analysis is “correct”, though not so in the history of the word and it’s pronunciation.

    He has been strong enough to correct himself with scientific facts he gets wrong – wither accidentally (as in mis-speaking under duress) or through insufficient knowledge which he later corrects. It diminishes his veracity however when he insists on pedantry when reference refutes him.

    As Gallagher said: “I will get serious with the English language when the English Language gets serious with me.”


  23. Sili


    It might be that long. China’s industry is picking up leaps and bounds and I recently read that if they’re gonna have Western standard of living, their consumption of ressources will be about equal to the world consumption now.

    Already prices on copper and zinc are incredibly high – why do you think the Mint want to get rid of the penny? (The fact that the dollar is in steady decline, doesn’t help, of course.)

    I gather that gangs from Eastern Europe are actually stealing wire from the railways here in Denmark. That’s how pricey copper has become.

  24. Dunc

    Sili – while it’s true that metals prices have gone up a lot recently, I still don’t think they’re within even a couple of orders of magnitude of the price needed to make asteroid mining a viable economic prospect. Getting stuff up the gravity well is enormously expensive. Once metals become maybe (pulling numbers out of my ass here) a thousand or a million times more expensive, then perhaps… Of course, you run into a bootstrapping problem then, as it becomes even more expensive to produce your asteroid mining equipment and infrastructure. It’s the Law of Receding Horizons – as your prices rise, so do your costs.

    As for the projections of Chinese demand… Sure, you can project a trend out and say things like “In 50 years time, the NASDAQ will be worth 10 times the current total value of the world economy,” or “In 24 hours, a single cell of E.Coli can produce a colony the size of planet Earth.” And then your stockbroker makes a fortune while you go broke. There’s a lot of things can happen between here and there – energy and water constraints being two of the most important. Trends always have limits.

    I suspect the Mint want to get rid of the penny mainly because it’s a pain to handle and not really worth anything any more. That’s why we got rid of the half-penny in the UK.

  25. Bering Hemmingsol, would you mind a) reading more carefully and b) familiarize yourself with the argument and what has gone before, instead of just babbling out teh stupid?

    I just stated the fact that Easterbrook pronounces “kilometer” the way he does in the course of an ongoing debate where Phil brings down the sword of the righteous on selfsame pronunciation.

    My statement ran rather like, Phil, look, intelligent, knowledgable people like Easterbrook pronounce it like this too. It wasn’t “hey, look at that klutz!”, who actually turns out to be you, all things considered.

    JackC, true, but. Phil is of course right etymologically. And historically: the 1953 Merriam-Webster Canyon-Knott A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English is still on his side; for the Easterbrook et al. pronunciation it states “much less frequent,” and the oldest Jones-Gimson English Pronouncing Dictionary for British English I own, from 1988, puts the Easterbrook et al. pronunciation in parentheses.

    But this has obviously changed, and language change isn’t a bad thing, it just happens. If you go to the current Merriam-Webster Web site and check it out, the formerly “much less frequent” pronunciation now has overtaken the “correct” pronunciation and has become the first entry. And here’s what it says there with regard to usage (it even somewhat contradicts, in favor of the “wrong” pronunciation, my findings above:

    usage In North American speech kilometer is most often pronounced with primary stress on the second syllable. This pronunciation is also heard frequently in British speech. Those who object to second syllable stress say that the first syllable should be stressed in accord with the stress patterns of centimeter, millimeter, etc. However, the pronunciation of kilometer does not parallel that of other metric compounds. From 1828 to 1841 Noah Webster indicated only second syllable stress, and his successor added a first syllable stress variant in the first Merriam-Webster dictionary of 1847. Thus, both pronunciations are venerable. Most scientists use second syllable stress, although first syllable stress seems to occur with a higher rate of frequency among scientists than among nonscientists.

    That of course doesn’t mean that Phil’s wrong. But he isn’t right either :-) And anyways, English is crammed with words whose pronunciations have deviated from their “correct” etymology over time.


  26. FrankR


    Easterbrook is a very interesting guy. He writes a weekly column during football season for ESPN called TMQ-Tuesday Morning Quarterback and seems to be an accomplished critical thinker. He wrote a very interesting book called ‘The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse’.

    Very nice posting, this is why I come to your sight, for thought provoking insight on Astronomy, more of this, less of the politico please.

  27. Daffy

    Wanna bet that if an asteroid ever does strike Earth, the same people complaining about NASA already spending too much money will be the same ones complaining that nothing was done in advance to prevent such a strike?


  28. firemancarl


    I didn’t watch the vid, but Easterbrook is an idiot, in one article on his TMQ, he berated all non believers and said that they ( we) are to blame for everything. it was in the wake of the Va Tech shootings. His replys to people calling him to the carpet were at the very best obnoxious. After that, I cannot bare to watch or read anything he does. Just my opinion, but thought you might like to know the guy is a dolt.

  29. firemancarl that’s a bold accusation, care to provide a link?

    An article on faith and violence, written by Gregg Easterbrook on, has actually been re-posted on about a year ago:,1137,Would-the-World-Be-Safer-Without-Religion,Gregg-Easterbrook-Beliefnetcom,page1#43272

    His conclusions are debatable, but this certainly does not make him a “dolt.”


  30. JackC

    gyokusai: I was going to add in my post that I collect “incorrect pronunciations” (I started with the English name of the tallest mountain in the world) but figured that didn’t matter.

    I have a theory that more than half the words we use in common daily American-English speech are “pronounced incorrectly” – and I am not just talking about the King’s English here. Although when necessary, I DO count that too :-) Kilometer is on the list – because it is incorrectly pronounced – so I am not all AGAINST Phill here, just his pedantry 😉

    I once experienced (in a grade school) a board on which the children had placed homonyms. In addition to others, these were found:

    here – hear
    there – they’re – their
    soar – sore – saw

    Yes – it was in Massachusetts.

    In my home town of the largest city in Kentucky, we used to have a joke in school. ‘How do you pronounce the capitol of Kentucky? Is it “Looie-ville” – or is it “Loois-ville”?’

    After letting an out-of-towner struggle a bit, we would say ‘Actually, the capitol of Kentucky is pronounced “Frank-fort”.’

    Yeah – it’s old, but so am I.



  31. firemancarl
  32. firemancarl

    I apologize. I couldn’t find the article I was looking for. Maybe I got GE confused with someone else. Given the dreck GE writes ( non sports ) I think I deserve a pass(please??)

  33. firemancarl LOL, yes, and thanks—some of the stuff is indeed pretty weird. But maybe not as outlandish as it looks. For example, if you read his original Wired contribution, you find:

    Did God or some other higher being create life? Did it begin on another world, to be transported later to ours? Until such time as a wholly natural origin of life is found, these questions have power. We’re improbable, we’re here, and we have no idea why. Or how.

    It certainly sounds as if he were a “God of the Gaps” proponent, but I think he’s just being a bit more, umh, fringe-ish, or science-fiction-ish here and elsewhere (which would relate, indirectly, to his assumption that NASA is frightened out of its pants at the prospect of being publicly perceived as supporting “science-fiction” ideas). And he certainly doesn’t count out a “wholly natural origin.”

    But yes of course, you have a point here. And he is going on about things, often enough, about which he obviously hasn’t sufficient knowledge.


  34. @Tom, @Bill, @gyokusai, et al.

    Haven’t you guys heard of 😀

  35. Celtic_Evolution

    I have to agree with firemancarl… Easterbrook is a dolt. I alluded ealier to his anti-semitic inuendo… here’s one article that shows it:

    Additionally, he consistently intersperses biblical references in with his ramblings on astronomy, he wrote an entire column devoted to offering sympathy for Michael Vick, is fervently anti-NASA, he stated in 2007 that the impending housing and mortgage crisis was “phony”.

    His understanding of the science he spouts off about is severely lacking… in one rant about the construction of particle accelerators he writes the following:

    High-energy particle accelerators cost taxpayers large sums but stand little chance of discovering anything of practical value. Promoted as quests for understanding of the universe, particle accelerators serve mostly as job programs for physicists, postdocs, and politically connected laboratories and contractors.

    And follows it up with this gem:

    Privately funded atom-smashers would be perfectly fine — unless one inadvertently transforms the Earth into an inert hyperdense sphere about 100 meters across… The superconducting magnets of Europe’s 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider, near Lake Geneva, are scheduled to turn on in 2008, and we can hope that a sizable chunk of the France-Switzerland border does not dematerialize at that instant… Western governments appear to be building these devices solely to stop physicists from complaining about the level of tax subsidies they receive. Is this really a sound public-policy reason to engage a risk of calamity?

    Like I said… he’s a tool.

  36. Sheesh, thanks Celtic_Evolution … this guy gets curiouser and curiouser, the more you dig.

    Guess it’s about time now to retract the “reasonable doubt” and admit this guy’s knee-deep into crackpottery … *sigh*. (But at least he had apologized timely, profusely, and in an acceptable manner, I think, for his phrasing that could indeed be understood as an antisemitic innuendo.)

    ZorkFox LOL, yes I did … but since this blog’s routines do such a great job at making “unbreakable” links, I’d rather prefer showing people where they might wind up after a click, so they wouldn’t have to mouse-hover and read the fineprint. (Really.) :-)


  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Yes, Gregg Easterbrook is a crank, possibly based in incompetence to see his own incompetence as so often.

    IIRC he made a mess of relativity and quantum mechanics in an article way back, explaining why physicists were wrong and he right. Never read him after that.

  38. Tom Marking

    I had previously heard about the 2,800 B.C. asteroid impact in the Indian Ocean which left a big crater on the bottom of the ocean. It also left huge piles of debris called chevrons in places like Madagascar. Interestingly it occurs at approximately the same time as some flood stories in the Middle East such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. If the guy is saying that it had the same size as the KT impactor that did in the dinosaurs, and if it had landed on land it would have caused a mass extinction then that’s a really, really scary thought.

    I had never heard of the 536 CE event off the northern coast of Australia. I think he’s right, NASA and the rest of the world’s space agencies need to jump on this one and start doing some substantial preparation work for charting asteroid courses to high precision and planning asteroid deflection missions. I can think of few things of higher importance that NASA should be doing.

  39. zeb

    You know, just because you claim Gregg Easterbrook is a crank in some things does not automatically render this argument invalid. To say it does is an ad hominem fallacy.

    Now, before you jump at me for being an Easterbrook lackey, or whatever, let me say I’ve actually never heard of him before today. Really. Level your criticism against his arguments not the man himself. I’m willing to give you the claim that he is a crank. Personally, I just don’t care.

    To me, his arguments are kind of compelling, but I don’t think that the threat of an asteroid impact is so imminent that we should throw a large amount of resources into developing an asteroid defense program. Even if we accept the asteroid strikes he points out at face-value, there’s still thousands of years between strikes. I think we risk little by waiting a few decades for better technology.

  40. Celtic_Evolution

    @ zeb

    I would accept your criticism willingly were it not for the fact that I didn’t just say he was a tool… I provided examples, quotes and references to the fact.

    As Torbjorn pointed out, he mutilated an article on quantum physics with a complete lack of understanding of some very basic principles of physics… and then went on to make the argument that physicists had it all wrong… I wish I could find the article to link it to… I think it was in the Atlantic several years back.

    Saying he was a crank without providing evidence to back it up would have absolutely been ad-hominem, and you would be right to point it out. But in this case, we’ve got facts to back the statement up. If you wish, feel free to take a read of some of the articles we’ve pointed out here, or do a search and see for yourself… I’m fairly confident that in short order you’ll agree with what we’ve been saying.

    By the way, I’m not lashing out against the message in this case… more the messenger in the form of Easterbrook… I’d rather see someone with some actual scientific credentials present the case and argument.

  41. Hoonser

    So basically this video is saying NASA doesn’t have any intention of saving us if we’re threatened by something from space.

    I no longer support the space program. What a bunch of jerks.

  42. firemancarl


    Glad we could help make you see the light! I dunno where Easterbrook gets off calling out Hawking. I suppose, the he has several degrees in theoretical physics and he just writes sports stuff for some extra cash. :)


    read the links I posted for gyokusai. They might help clarify things.

  43. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ zeb:

    As I called him a crank; I too was commenting on the messenger, not the message.

  44. firemancarl, LOL! And kudos to you and Torbjörn and especially Celtic_Evolution for pointing these things out and pointing out to zeb that you’ve actually been pointing these things out, and maybe it’s time for some recursive pointing out now and chasing the message with the messenger or something, just so as to confuse zeb a bit further and let’s see what happens 😉

    Seriously, though, since I’ve gotten a bit wary by now: can anyone do the math on this “tractor trick” Easterbrook brought forward, and verify that there are possible cases in which this scenario would actually bear out? How much mass/weight would a probe have to have, in order to get an asteroid that’s on collision course with Earth with a given diameter and a certain speed to change its course for some degrees, of fractions thereof, and how far away would that have to happen? Lots of variables to deal with here, but it should be possible to calculate some average cases, no?


  45. Irishman

    gyokusai, for the gravity tractor technique:

    For a 200-metre-wide asteroid, the spacecraft would need to weigh about 20 tonnes and lurk 50 metres from its target for about a year to change its velocity enough to knock it off course.

    This idea was devised by Edward Lu, a NASA scientist and astronaut.

    See also

  46. Thanks, Irishman, that’s interesting. Sounds like it’s not a completely off-the-wall idea after all, but still quite a stretch from being realistic.

    What’s bugging me is the diameter gap between the figure in the model and the figure given for the time span such an endeavor would actually have at its disposal before impact. 200 m is not “less” but massively less than 500 m. And to introduce the argument of economic feasibility at this point—the whole point of the proposal is its feasability, isn’t it?—strikes me a bit as, well, moving the goal posts.


  47. Mndbdsol

    I agree the production value of this video is poor and inaccurate. It just goes to show how snippets of existing material on “space” can pass for accurate depictions of such events. I personally think that institutions that try to pass this material off as “accurate” simply feel it is a waste to do it correctly. Simply put, they depict these events inaccurately because they can. There aim is not to educate, rather to just entertain.

  48. Oli

    Why do they make these great interviews into awful videos with extremely inaccurate pictures? I’d rather have just the audio than the crappy ‘footage’ (I guess the makers of the video thought that it had been filmed IRL) of a comet (can’t call it an asteroid) moving through a cloud of stars with a tail that miraculously always points in the same direction (pfff)… And pictures of galaxies? What the heck?


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