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"Asteroid Hunters" sheds light on keeping killer space boulders at bay

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Movies about Earth-threatening space boulders generally follow this trajectory: astonished scientists discover an impending impact, alert a skeptical world and take heroic measures to try to stop the rock.

That’s essentially the plot of “Don’t Look Up,” Adam McKay’s sci-fi satire currently in theatres, which stokes public fears about doom from above.

It’s not the case with “Asteroid Hunters,” the new IMAX documentary that opens Dec. 15 at the Ontario Science Centre’s Omnimax Theatre. The film marks the 25th anniversary of Ontario’s first and only IMAX Dome theatre, which projects images 10 times the size of standard 35 mm film.

“Asteroid Hunters,” directed by W.D. Hogan, seeks to inform and excite people about what can be done to stave off a catastrophic asteroid strike of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago.

Don’t think something like that couldn’t happen again: there are roughly a billion asteroids of various sizes circling Earth, along with their gnarly cousins, meteors, which are essentially the same things.

Hundreds of asteroid craters around the planet, including the Sudbury Basin, Northern Ontario’s massive impact structure created nearly two billion years ago, attest to the hits the Earth has already taken.

“It’s not a question of if an asteroid will hit, but when,” says actor Daisy Ridley of “Star Wars” fame, who narrates the 40-minute IMAX film.

Using computer animation and scientific extrapolation of astronomical data, “Asteroid Hunters” shows with terrifying finality what would happen if a likely sized asteroid, measuring about 300 metres across, were to strike near the city of Calgary. Destructive shock waves would radiate for 100 kilometres or more from the strike zone.

But even though “Asteroid Hunters” doesn’t stint on the dangers that rogue asteroids pose to Earth, the doc is far from a doom-and-gloom viewing experience.

Writer/producer Philip Groves, who first began work on the film a dozen years ago, said via email that he laboured to make a script that would inform but not terrify the masses.

He’s mindful that many young children are among the 7.3 million people who have thrilled to the Omnimax Theatre’s immersive storytelling over the past quarter-century, with its 24-metre, 44-speaker domed screen.

“It took dozens of rewrites to make the story more reassuring while keeping it informative, accurate and emotionally engaging,” said Groves, who lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. “With each pass, more emphasis was put on showing people in control, while exploring the one good thing about an asteroid impact: it is the only natural disaster we actually can prevent.”

A current NASA mission aims to do just that. The U.S. space agency recently launched a spacecraft called DART — Double Asteroid Redirection Test — that by next September, if all goes well, will smash into a faraway asteroid to nudge it into a new flight path away from Earth. It’s a test of technology to make space boulders keep their distance.

As the film’s title implies, “Asteroid Hunters” introduces viewers to some of the many scientists around the globe who use high-powered telescopes to monitor the skies for NEOs (near Earth objects) and PHAs (potentially hazardous asteroids).

There’s a gathering called the Planetary Defense Conference, which meets every two years to discuss measures like DART to keep bothersome boulders at bay.

“No idea is too crazy,” one of the scientists says.

As dangerous as asteroids are, comets are even more so, even as they delight us with their long tails as Comet Neowise did two summers ago. A comet the size of Mount Everest is the approaching menace of “Don’t Look Up.”

Composed of frozen water, minerals and metals (scientists call them “dirty snowballs”), they tend to speed up more than asteroids as they approach Earth, potentially making them a bigger threat to us.

Groves said a comet would slam into us at more than 160,000 km/h, while asteroids are slowpokes by comparison, hitting at 56,000 to 64,000 km/h.

“Thank goodness the odds are much, much lower of comets impacting, because they are fewer and their orbits are often measured in hundreds if not thousands of years.”

I asked Groves if there was one fact he learned that really impressed him and/or frightened him about asteroids and their troublesome kin, during his 12 years of research and filming “Asteroid Hunters.”

“We all know about the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago,” he replied. “The relative size of that asteroid to Earth was like a very small grain of sand as compared to a basketball.

“Yikes! That impressed and frightened me. But we have bigger brains than the dinosaurs. And a space program. Hazardous asteroids are a problem we can beat. The trick is finding them, before they find us.” 🌓

(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



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