Armageddon, terrible movie about oil drillers on an asteroid how would a space shuttle or other space traveling vehicle fare for persons odds of arrival, survival, and departure from an asteroid?
Oh god, what have you done. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE.
You may think Armageddon is a terrible movie, and you would hardly be wrong to do so. Michael Bay’s job is to make blockbuster movies that make extensive use of special effects and loud action scenes to cover up the fact that they have no logical plot or consistent characterisation to speak of, and are designed to cater to people whose brains are operating on the mental level of a twelve year-old boy. Literally every single one of his films has been offensively bad. Like, not just the regular kind of bad, where you sit through it and it’s bad and at the end of it you think “Well, that was bad, I won’t be watching that again.” No, that would be too easy for Bay, and in fact if he ever made a film that was simply bad I’d think he was slipping somehow. What sets Bay’s films apart from the rest of the lowing, braying herd of CGI summer blockbusters is that they seem to be designed to piss the audience off. I honestly don’t know how you can watch a Transformers film and be anything other than utterly and completely ashamed and insulted – ashamed because you spent two-plus hours of your life watching this crap and you don’t want anyone else to know, and insulted because Michael Bay thinks you are stupid enough to enjoy something pitched at the level of a Transformers movie. It’s only a Michael Bay film that can make me feel soiled somehow after I’m done watching it, like I need a day-long shower to wash off all of the dumb that has built up on my skin. It’s hard to accurately recall just how horrible I felt after watching Transformers 3, but thanks to the internet my immediate reaction has been preserved for posterity:
Transformers 3 should be submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal because it conclusively proves many things that otherwise would have taken decades if not centuries of study and observation. The intellectual bankruptcy of Western civilization and culture. The non-existence of God. The ultimate futility of living in a world where the laws of physics allow such crimes to be perpetrated against the very nature of the universe. Like some sort of Lovecraftian horror that has slithered forth from an unholy nether dimension, Transformers 3 is so utterly and fundamentally at odds with everything good and sane that the mind atavistically recoils and refuses to comprehend it. And even if I manage to purge the experience of having watched it from my memory it will still leave signs of its passage; a broad swath of tainted brain matter that cannot be reused for any other purpose but which instead grows and expands, subverting healthy tissue and corrupting my mind to its vile purpose until I am a twisted ur-man no longer capable of rational thought. Ia! Ia! Baythulu fhtagn!
Right. Yes. Anyway. Michael Bay films. Very bad. Very bad. Armageddon is a bad film, and it is no less bad for having been made during Bay’s early period (it was his third film or something), but by the standards of Michael Bay it is unremarkably bad. There’s nothing to make it stand out in terms of badness from the likes of Pearl Harbor or The Island – yes, it’s stupid, and shot with Bay’s trademark oversaturation of American flags fluttering in the breeze, and the scene with the minigun makes no logical or rational sense, but neither do any of his other films so there’s nothing here to mark it out as different in any way.
That is, unless you happen to have a PhD in solar system impact physics, at which point Armageddon becomes tied with Mission to Mars for the Worst Cinematic Atrocity Perpetrated Against Science award. You’ve got an unrealistically sized asteroid heading towards Earth which is stated to be “the size of Texas”, so about 700 miles across, except there’s only one asteroid (now dwarf planet) in the belt anywhere near that big and we’d notice if anything happened to it. The asteroid has been knocked out of its orbit by a comet; this is a chunk of ice which is typically Not Very Big and has sod all mass thanks to being made of spongey ice, and would have little impact on the orbital trajectory of a an asteroid 700 miles on a side1. The asteroid itself looks nothing like an asteroid that’s just been walloped by a comet; there’s a few chunks of rock and clouds of debris orbiting with it like you’d expect, but I don’t think any asteroid would look quite as spiky as the one in Armageddon does. It should look just like a big rock, or like a big pile of agglomerated rubble compressed down into a sphere by its own self-gravity. Instead it looks all gothic and nightmarish and there’s lots of weird green and blue hues used in the lighting (again, trademarks of Bay) because that shit looks cooler, I guess.
Then you’ve got the actual asteroid impacts on Earth, which are also awful. The one at the start creates a moving wall of fire that eventually consumes the entire planet, and I don’t even know how this would work. Asteroid impacts tend not to be about fire so much as they are massive earthquakes and huge blast waves. Oh, anything caught nearby is going to be a crispy critter (read the first statement from a witness of the Tunguska event) thanks to the immense heat of the asteroid’s entry into the atmosphere and sheer quantity of energy liberated when it either hits the ground or explodes in an airburst, but we’re talking something about the size of a big nuclear fireball here, and not some all-encompassing global catastrophe. While the shock waves would devastate an area hundreds or thousands or miles around the impact site, truly global damage would be done through dust clouds/climate change for the smaller asteroids, and the physical disruption of the Earth’s crust for the larger ones.
The second thing this – and all other Hollywood films about asteroids, including Deep Impact – gets wrong is the speed of the asteroid. Asteroids in films move slowly, almost leisurely, like an out-of-control jet airliner rather than a piece of space rock moving at 20-30 kilometres per second. People on the ground have plenty of time to see them coming and make futile attempts to escape. In reality, unless the asteroid comes in at an incredibly oblique angle the time lag between an asteroid entering the Earth’s atmosphere and hitting the ground is about one second. Try snapping your fingers once; that’s how fast an asteroid impact would seem to a watching human. If they’re standing close enough to see it happen they’re screwed, and even people who are safely over the horizon will be killed by a blast wave pushing a wall of moving rock and debris towards them faster than the speed of sound. Even smaller asteroids (and we’re talking the metres-scale stuff that makes it to the ground here) would pack enough punch to explode with the force of a moderately-sized stack of TNT. You see the Barringer Crater? The thing in North America that’s over a kilometre wide and 200 metres deep? We think the rock that created it was about fifty metres in diameter. Fifty. Metres. Just one of the “tiny” rocks featured at the start of Armageddon would devastate a significant area of New York if it managed to score a direct hit, rather than just chopping the top off of the Chrysler building. Movies dramatically understate how lethal and destructive asteroid impacts are. It’s one of the many cases where the reality is actually far more terrifying than what’s on film, but it’s deliberately understated so as not to scare the living daylights out of the audience.
And then we get to your question, which is: could we fly a spacecraft up to an asteroid and land on it? The answer is, yes we can. In fact we have, and they even managed to get the spacecraft back to Earth orbit afterwards. Armageddon’s rendition of military space shuttles that handle like jet fighters in outer space is completely ludicrous, of course, but we’ve managed it with a robot probe so there’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t do with an appropriately-designed manned spacecraft. Before the Orion program was gutted by the US administration one of the proposed missions was a trip out to a Near Earth Object – in other words an asteroid orbiting relatively close-by to the Earth (out past the orbit of the Moon, but not too far out) – so it’s something that is seriously considered by space agencies today, and it’d actually be considerably safer than a trip to Mars thanks to the shorter mission duration and the fact that “landing” on an asteroid doesn’t mean marooning yourself at the bottom of a gravity well.
This is what happens when somebody mentions Armageddon to me; I spend 1500 words ranting and then finally get around to actually answering their question in a single paragraph. The movie’s science was deconstructed years ago by somebody with far more patience than me2, and it used to be shown to new management hires at NASA as a training exercise to see how many inaccuracies they could spot. It is quite literally the textbook case of How Not To Do It. Please, nobody ever bring it up on here again.
(Incidentally if you want to know if we could use Armageddon as a blueprint for saving the world from a real rogue asteroid, I already covered it in a previous post.)
- That’s not to say that it couldn’t pack enough punch to fuck the asteroid up on a superficial level, but it’s not going to send it careening inwards towards the Earth like a ball on a pool table; at most it’d adjust the orbital trajectory of the asteroid inwards slightly so that it formed a more exaggerated ellipse than the near-circular ones most bodies usually orbit on. Given that the asteroid belt is between Jupiter and Mars, the amount of energy that would be required to adjust an asteroid’s orbit to the point where it intersected the Earth’s would be strikingly similar to the amount of energy required to smash the asteroid out of existence. There’s basically no way it reaches Earth intact. ↩
- I last read this page over a decade ago when I was an idiot. Coming back to it ten years later and discovering that I’ve independently come to many of the same conclusions is a nice vindication of all those years spent studying astrophysics. ↩