Incoming! Hollywood asteroid-disaster melodrama on the way



Tonight at 9 pm EDT, CBS TV premieres “Salvation,” a “new summer series” revolving around an impending catastrophic asteroid impact with Earth.

Based on what I’ve read and seen about the series – you can watch a 15-minute preview here – it looks to me as if this series might be entertaining, if you’re into doomsday-end-of-the-world stories. But it certainly doesn’t promise to be realistic.

This series promises to be an overblown melodrama, with lots of side stories, focusing, as usual, on romances, conspiracies, and other sorts of political intrigue, and perpetuating a number of myths that appear to be near and dear to Hollywood.

Myth #1: If the U.S. government were to know that an asteroid large enough to cause catastrophic damage to Earth was on a certain impact course, it would keep it a secret from citizens.

Mythbuster #1: Impossible. No known asteroids are predicted to be on an impact course with Earth over the next 100 years. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) funds the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies, which maintains a public record of all known near-Earth objects and predictions of their orbital paths over the next century. The Minor Planet Center, also funded by the PDCO, maintains public records of global asteroid detections and trackings. If an asteroid is detected by one observer at a particular location, and, hypothetically, that observer is an evil scientist who wants to keep it secret, understand that observers all around the world are watching the same sky, and others will find that asteroid. They can’t all be evil, can they? Yes, of course, it’s possible that a previously undetected asteroid could impact Earth – see, for example, the Chelyabinsk asteroid impact event of February 2013. Yes, it’s possible that a previously undetected asteroid large enough to cause serious damage to Earth could be on an impact course. It’s possible that an as-yet-undetected asteroid large enough to cause global damage could be on an impact course with Earth. But we’ve found most of the big ones.

Myth #2: The government would silence/eliminate a scientist who’s trying to tell citizens “the truth.”

Mythbuster #2: My colleagues in NASA’s PDCO wonder whether the MIT asteroid expert who’s “disappeared” in Episode 1 of “Salvation” might be modeled at least in part on our MIT colleague Rick Benzel, who’s a for-real asteroid expert and has been speaking out about asteroid impact hazards for years. Rest assured, Rick is alive and well, and I believe my colleagues in government appreciate his service.

Myth #3: A megalomaniacal billionaire, not world governments, will be our only hope of “salvation” from such a catastrophic event (from the 15-minute preview, this is where I’m guessing the story will go…).

Mythbuster #3: Please. The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) – not Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson or Nathan Myhrvold (the latter not officially a biollionaire, but nonetheless very rich) – has planetary defense on its radar. With UN endorsement (though not financial support), two multinational groups are coordinating planning for planetary defense again asteroid impacts – the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG). I’ve been to a number of meetings of both groups, and their members are definitely not interested in operating in secret. What they are interested in is pooling their resources to identify impact risks and prepare for defending the planet in the event – which is, as of today, hypothetical – of an impending impact with Earth.

CBS/Hollywood will keep pumping out the drama, but citizens of Earth, know it’s only a story.