Friday, April 09, 2010

Cosmic Collisions: Universe SMASH!... from National Geographic!

Critics of science shows on TV often complain about what seems like a
gratuitous number of crashes and explosions that are tangential to the

Luckily for those of us covering astronomy, the universe is a breeding
ground for violent impacts.

—Image copyright BASE Productions/Sauce

After all, the whole thing started with a bang. Since then, supernovae
(some caused by stellar smashes) have seeded the universe with
building-block elements. Asteroid impacts have altered planetary
geography. Galactic mergers have created whole new galaxies.

Really, it's tough to find a corner of space that hasn't been touched
by an epic collision.

So if you like your science TV full of actual science and lots of cool
crashes, I direct your attention to "Cosmic Collisions," the first in
a new series called Known Universe premiering tomorrow at 10 p.m. on
the National Geographic Channel. (Full disclosure: NGC is part-owned
by the National Geographic Society, which fully owns this blog.)

I got a sneak peek at the script for tomorrow's show, and IMHO the
Channel has its accuracy bases covered.

Among the luminaries that loan "Cosmic Collisions" their expertise:
planet hunters Geoff Marcy and Mike Brown, asteroid-strike expert Don
Yeomans, former Apollo astronaut Rusty Scheickart—even fellow space
blogger Phil Plait, author of the collision-filled book Death From the

The hour-long show highlights notable collisions in the distant past,
near present, and far future, most of which have some impact (har) on

For example, we most likely have a moon because a protoplanet about
the size of Mars careened into early Earth, breaking off a glob of
material that coalesced in orbit around us.

We also most likely have dominion over the planet because another huge
object crashed the dinosaur's party about 65 million years ago,
triggering the mass extinction that allowed mammals to flourish.

The seeds of dino doom.
—Image copyright BASE Productions/Sauce

Considering that it's happened before, astronomers are anticipating
that catastrophic collisions with Earth might happen again, and there
are people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the risks
and thinking up solutions.

"The scary thing about a lot of these is we don't see them until after
they've already passed us," Plait says in the show.

"So that's when we say, "Oh, yesterday a hundred-yard-wide asteroid
missed us by 50,000 miles [about 80,000 kilometers]. Yeah, you don't
want to hear that."

For example, a "surprise" 65-foot-wide (20-meter-wide) asteroid buzzed
Earth last March, passing just 41,010 miles (66,000 kilometers) from
the surface.

Some of the biggies, like the infamous Apophis, we can see coming: We
know we'll have a close call with the massive space rock in April
2029, ironically, on Friday the 13th. But there are complications that
could lead to disaster—which you'll have to watch to find out ...

But wait, there's more! Earth is also menaced by radiation from gamma
ray bursts, the products of stellar collisions, and from any leftover
roaming black holes.

Even further down the line, our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is slated
for a smashup with the Andromeda galaxy, and the show's scientists
offer a few ideas on what that might mean for Earth.

Personally, I can't wait to see some of these spacey smashups brought
to life in my living room—and I can't wait to hear what the
blogosphere has to say about this addition to the world of explosive
science programing.

PS: Be sure to go play on the Known Universe Web site, where you can
build your own universe and visit a virtual lab full of alien life.

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