Cosmic Collisions: Universe SMASH!

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

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 Skies!

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

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.

Human Journey