Asteroid Day Exclusives

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‘Salvation’ on CBS: Discussion Part 2

CBS Salvation Discussion Part 2

Mark Boslough (ADXP chair), Rusty Schweickart (Apollo 9 astronaut and Asteroid Day co-founder), and Pol Felten (Asteroid Day Communications Manager) continue a conversation about about Salvation.

Mark: The latest plot twists give us plenty to talk about after week 4. Since we’re not Siskel and Ebert, let’s leave it to others to critique the writing, characters, acting, and so forth. I want us stay in our comfort zone and just talk about the science and technology of planetary defense as we did last time. What parts of the storyline struck you as realistic and unrealistic from that perspective?

Pol: I only really saw one aspect worth elaborating on, when they were talking about breaking the asteroid apart into smaller fragments using the kinetic impactor. You already mentioned in our previous post that the Io probe probably wouldn’t have the mass to actually break a massive asteroid apart. But assuming it would manage to do so, are there any legal considerations following such a break up?

Mark: That’s a good question. There are as many legal systems as there are countries, and there are both civil and criminal laws. Most of us understand the concept of “if you break it, you buy it”. But there are also “Good Samaritan” laws on the books that limit liability to parties that are acting in good faith. In this case, who has jurisdiction? If you get smacked by an asteroid fragment because of an action taken by the US government, can you sue for damages? Who is the arbiter or judge?

Pol: In the case of the series, the smaller asteroid fragments would miss the Western hemisphere and instead rain down as a meteor shower on Russia, China, Mongolia, etc. – basically all over Asia, with an estimated total death rate of 1,146,342,214. Yes, I’m screengrabbing the show now!

CBS Salvation Screenshot

Salvation‘s Io Probe – Again

Rusty: I’ve got two points regarding the the kinetic impactor resulting in fragmentation and shifting the impact zone (now a distributed zone vs. point) to the East and wiping out billions of people.  One is technical the other geopolitical.

Mark: Just to catch up on the story first, the “Io Probe” is apparently a small interplanetary NASA mission to study Io, a moon of Jupiter. The Pentagon tried to repurpose it and crash it into the asteroid to break it up and have the main fragments miss the US at the expense of other parts of the world.  But the uplink communications were hacked by a saboteur who sent a different command and the mission failed. All this action takes place over a few minutes in the vicinity of Jupiter, which is inconsistent with orbital dynamics (the asteroid would have been plunging into the inner solar system since it was discovered, and a probe in orbit around the gas giant would not have the fuel or performance to leave the enormous gravitational well and chase the asteroid down, let alone on such a compressed time scale).  Again, artistic license trumps physics in favour of a dramatic story line.

CBS Salvation Io Probe

Rusty: Here’s my technical point about the kinetic impactor (going beyond the earlier point that fragmentation would not be likely and accepting the premise of it breaking up for our discussion’s sake). In a fragmentation scenario the resulting debris cloud, likely comprised of lots of small and some big chunks, would end up distributed along a line across the Earth due to orbital mechanics. We call this line the risk corridor, representing the uncertainty in precisely where the asteroid would impact as long as it isn’t entirely diverted. The Planetary Defense Conference actually runs exercises based on hypothetical asteroid impact scenarios where a risk corridor like the one picture below come into play.

Planetary Defense Conference 2017 Risk Corridor
Planetary Defense Conference 2017 – Risk Corridor EXERCISE

The Risk Corridor and Geopolitics

Rusty: The distribution of debris along a line is important since evacuation would be done perpendicular to that line, i.e. to the North and South (assuming that the line is East/West). Now if one assumes, logically, that there would be some pretty big chunks remaining, say hundreds of metres in diameter, that would really fatten the line and influence how far North or South one would have to go to be safe. Likely hundreds of miles, maybe thousands. So to make that clear: The impact zone might well be a line, 20 km x 2,000 km resulting in an evacuation zone 2,000 km x 3,000 km. That’s a lot of people to evacuate but not likely billions.

But if any of the fragments that impact Earth after a fragmentation (whether by kinetic impact or nuclear explosion) are larger than 2 km in diameter (and there could hypothetically be over 40 of these in a 7 km diameter asteroid!), then on impact we’re talking about the end of civilisation on Earth, not just problems in “the Eastern hemisphere”! Fragmentation is problematic, to understate it.

Mark: This reminds me of the scenarios that Paul Chodas of JPL developed for our last two Planetary Defense Conferences. Our 2015 conference in Italy had a risk corridor representing uncertainty of impact location that extended from Turkey at the western end across southern and southeast Asia and on to the eastern Pacific. In this year’s scenario it crossed Europe, Russian and the far east and into the mid-Pacific. Those playing the decision makers in the exercise had to decide whether to push the asteroid to the east or west in each scenario, but that shifts the risk from one part of the world to another.

CBS Salvation Monitors

Rusty: That brings me to the geopolitical issue, where reality breaks away from the Salvation plot most dramatically. We earlier stated that the discovery of an asteroid impact within 6 months could not be kept secret. Not only would the entire scientific community know about it, but other nations besides the US would also get wind of the discovery through their own space agencies and the aforementioned channels. So the only acceptable action would be to shove the impact point not from the Western hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere, as in the story, but entirely off the planet, which would mean about double or more than what they attempt to do.

But all deflections essentially mean dragging the original impact point across the Earth’s surface either East or West following the storyline until it’s off the Earth. But in reality the world will have to decide which way. It’s going to be one way or the other. And in all likelihood the probability of success will be high. But the possibility of a partial deflection will always be there and that means that those who live along the line of the risk corridor in the direction of deflection will have, temporarily, an increased risk of ending up in the impact zone. That’s the real either-or. And it’s real. But it’s not going to be a secret, one nation’s military or government saying “them or us”.

CBS Salvation Space Ship

Pol: Let’s see where they go next, and if the planetary defense aspect will remain relevant. I predict it’s all going towards Tanz evacuating his 160 attractive young artists, philosophers and scientists towards Mars, moving away from an asteroid impact story to one about birthing a new civilisation on another planet. A non-deviated asteroid would obviously help push the funding for this project of his. Or maybe he plans on letting it crash into Mars, using it to terraform the planet in the same way that asteroids or comets might have brought water and life to Earth billions of years ago. Let’s wait and see what happens.

Further information:

Rusty already dedicated an entire blog post to the geopolitical issues of putting a nation or region’s citizens temporarily at risk while deflecting an asteroid, with quite some interesting insights, as part of his planetary defense blog series.

Further information on asteroid detection can be found here.

To learn more about asteroids in general, click on this link.

You can also submit another question you’d like to get answered to our Asteroid Day Expert Panel. To do so, just fill in this form!

We will keep revisiting Salvation in the coming weeks whenever interesting concepts pop up that our Expert Panel feels need further explanation or insight. Therefore keep coming back here to find out more! In the meantime, you will already find plenty of information about several other topics the series touches on throughout the Asteroid Day website: For more information on various asteroid deflection methods, please visit our page dedicated to these efforts. Rusty Schweickart also wrote an entire blog series about planetary defense that will help to clarify some issues!



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‘Salvation’ on CBS

Salvation CBS

On July 12th, CBS launched Salvation, its newest summer miniseries in the US, dealing with the ramifications of the discovery of an asteroid on course for a collision with Earth in just six months. At the centre of the show are a MIT grad student’s and tech billionaire’s efforts to prevent the impact, while the US Department of Defense has its own planetary defense plans. The second episode aired on July 19th. Interested American viewers can watch previously released episodes on CBS’ Salvation website. Our Asteroid Day Expert Panel (ADXP) kindly offered to provide a commentary. They aren’t television critics and will leave it to others to comment on aspects of the story that don’t directly relate to asteroids and planetary defense.  Even with that narrow scope, there was too much material in the first two episodes to tackle in a single blog, so they will post updates throughout the duration of the miniseries.

The Asteroid Day Expert Panel weighs in on Salvation

Here is what Mark Boslough (ADXP chair), Rusty Schweickart (Apollo 9 astronaut and Asteroid Day co-founder), and other experts had to say about Salvation:

Rusty Schweickart: We are glad that asteroids are part of the public conversation – that’s why Asteroid Day was created. We are excited about the visibility a major TV series provides the general public to engage in the question of asteroid impacts. This gives us another opportunity to do what we enjoy most: educating and informing people about the science behind asteroids and their impacts on Earth.

Being scientists first and foremost, we would like to clarify some of the series’ science to help the general public better understand how such a deflection mission would work in reality, and recognise what obstacles the main protagonists would actually have to face.

This is intended to increase the story’s value by discussing real-world issues and challenges.

Rusty & Mark: We all (even technical geeks like us) enjoy good storytelling. At the same time – especially where the show is dealing with a serious and potentially real issue – it is important to understand how the events portrayed would be different in real life. This isn’t intended to take away from the enjoyment of the story but rather to increase its value by discussing real-world issues and challenges.

Mark Boslough: In science fiction you do have to to allow for some artistic license or the storytelling just wouldn’t work. Still, I think the details that don’t substantively affect the plot should be as much in line with reality as possible. Those are the details we are focused on.

Salvation Vesta

The undiscovered 7-km asteroid

Rusty: At the centre of the series is a 7-km asteroid that is only discovered about six months prior to its impact on Earth. For an ordinary NEA (near-Earth Asteroid) of that size it is highly unlikely, if not to say a ridiculous, assumption – that such an object would only be discovered with so little warning time. An asteroid of this size, if in an ordinary Earth-crossing orbit, would almost certainly be known decades in advance.

Mark: The show has the object in a comet-like orbit. It was discovered near Jupiter and will impact in 6 months, suggesting an orbit that is very eccentric and stretched out into the distant solar system. That means the object would have a very long orbital period. It would take a very long time – possibly hundreds years or more – to complete each circuit around the sun. When viewed from the Earth, comets tend to look like fuzzy objects because they trail dust and vapour (the “coma”)  and asteroids look like points of light. The scientists in the show refer to the threatening object as an asteroid, so it must look like a point of light with no coma in their images. But since it’s in a cometary orbit, astronomers in real life would probably be calling it a comet.

There is less than a 1% chance that an existing 7-km Earth-crossing asteroid has not been discovered.

Planetary scientist Alan W. Harris estimates that there is less than a 1% chance that an existing 7-km Earth-crossing asteroid has not been discovered. This would require that it is in an Earth-like orbit and out of phase (or in some kind of resonance that puts it behind the sun at every perihelion – the point in the orbit of an asteroid at which it is closest to the sun). But that’s not the case here, because this object was discovered near Jupiter.

As for time from Jupiter to the Earth, the minimum time to “fall” from the distance of Jupiter to the Earth in a bound orbit would be around 3/4 of a year. Other trajectories could be much slower, but anything faster would require speeds greater than required to escape from the solar system. However the six months to impact as described in the story is not much shorter than the minimum time from a bound orbit, for example an object can get from 4 AU (arguably “close to Jupiter”) to the Earth in six months. The Salvation object is highly improbable, but not impossible. We have objects discovered and designated initially as asteroids that didn’t show coma until they got a lot closer in. The scenario is not entirely impossible, except that “six months” from “near Jupiter” is a bit too short.

Salvation Gravity Tractor

The gravitational tractor (GT)

Rusty: The choice to use a gravitational tractor (see Nature article / Scientific American article / Simulation video) to deflect the asteroid was pretty special since Ed Lu of the B612 Foundation along with Stan Love invented that concept. However, a gravity tractor is NOT the right tool for the job of deflecting a 7-km-diameter asteroid from impacting Earth! A gravitational tractor (GT) will be an essential component of any asteroid deflection campaign but it would be used ONLY to “trim” (i.e. very slightly adjust) a far more robust primary deflection, most likely either a kinetic impact or a (last resort only) nuclear explosion for blast deflection.

I sometimes look at a deflection campaign like doing an appendectomy on an Elephant.

The GT is a very wimpy deflection method for making small but precise adjustments to a deflected asteroid’s new orbit to make sure that it doesn’t return for an impact a few years later due to the gravitational kick it gets as it “just misses” the Earth. A deflection campaign will almost always be a 1-2, where the 1 is a primary, robust (but imprecise) kick from a kinetic impact (to transfer momentum from a spacecraft) or nuclear explosion, and 2 is a subsequent small adjustment to that big kick if the asteroid appears to be headed for an improbable, but possible subsequent impact.

I sometimes look at a deflection campaign like doing an appendectomy on an Elephant. You’ve got to first use a chainsaw to get through the skin, and only when inside do you pull out the scalpel for the fine, precise work!

Clark Chapman: A GT would be able to deal with a body roughly one millionth the mass of the oncoming killer asteroid, and it is simply not credible that this gigantic mismatch of capability would be unknown by the DoD. Given other things that happen in the story, however, I wouldn’t rule out that it will turn out that the DoD actually does know that a gravity tractor can’t work, and that various things apparent in the first episode will turn out to be different.

Salvation Juno Probe

Repurposing the Io space probe

Rusty: The re-purposed Io spacecraft or probe used as a kinetic impactor (KI) was a really interesting idea to deflect the asteroid. But given the size of the NEO it would still not be robust enough to get the deflection job done even though it would have been a thousand times more effective than a gravity tractor. And by the way, it would not, based on our current understanding, have had any likelihood of fragmenting the asteroid.

Holding the discovery secret

Rusty: The idea that knowledge of an imminent asteroid impact could be held a secret is probably a great dramatic element for an entertainment drama, but it is (thankfully) impossible in reality. Telescopes all over the world are staffed by hundreds of people, including graduate students. They observe dozens if not hundreds of moving objects every night and report them to the Minor Planet Center (MPC) each morning. In most cases they have no clue whether any of them are new or old, big and far away or small and close. But they are immediately put onto a public web page by MPC so that observers all over the world can independently confirm that yes, there is an object there, and provide some more precise coordinates. Many independent people are almost immediately involved and would know about any shocking discovery. A 7-km-diameter asteroid on an immediate collision course would be shocking indeed and known by hundreds of people almost simultaneously. And it would be all on public websites. No way to make it secret, it’s out of the bag from the get-go. NASA and other space agencies fully understand that transparency about hazardous asteroids is the only option for both ethical and practical reasons.

Salvation EmDrive

The EmDrive

Rusty: In the second episode the show came up with an interesting “mechanism” in order to get their proposed gravity tractor (GT) out to the asteroid faster so that it has more time to accomplish the deflection. This assumes, incorrectly, that a GT if there earlier, can get the deflection job done. Unfortunately that wouldn’t be possible: Even if a GT were there instantly it wouldn’t be able to change the orbit of the asteroid enough to miss the Earth in 186 days. But forgetting that issue, the show picking up the EmDrive is interesting in itself.

The EmDrive is essentially an as yet unproven and controversial concept that would use microwaves to generate an extremely low thrust rocket engine without any exhaust coming out the back end, or any fuel used. It would just produce the microwaves under specific conditions and give you an amazing propulsion system.

For now, the EmDrive is similar to Star Trek‘s Warp Drive.

Mark: Basically, for now, the EmDrive is similar to the Warp Drive of Star Trek lore. Not realistic but necessary to move the plot (we can all agree that no matter what the merit is, it’s not realistic to develop in a month or two). I’m a skeptic of anything that violates Newton’s third law, but it’s a plot device.

For more information on the EmDrive, space.com already wrote an article about the controversial propulsion method in Salvation.

We will keep revisiting Salvation in the coming weeks whenever interesting concepts pop up that our Expert Panel feels need further explanation or insight. Therefore keep coming back here to find out more! In the meantime, you will already find plenty of information about several other topics the series touches on throughout the Asteroid Day website: For more information on various asteroid deflection methods, please visit our page dedicated to these efforts. Rusty Schweickart also wrote an entire blog series about planetary defense that will help to clarify the issue!

Further information on asteroid detection can be found here.

To learn more about asteroids in general, click on this link.

You can also submit another question you’d like to get answered to our Asteroid Day Expert Panel. To do so, just fill in this form!

read more
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Asteroid Day Update – September Edition – OSIRIS-REx


In this month’s Asteroid Update video series, our host Scott Manley talks to Dr. Dante Lauretta, Asteroid Day Expert and Principal Investigator (PI) for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission. OSIRIS-REx launched this on September 8, 2016 from the Kennedy Space Center on a multi-year mission to study the asteroid Bennu.

Bennu is a particularly interesting asteroid, whose regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system –and essentially the origins of life. OSIRIS-REx’s mission will be to map the asteroid and return a sample. Bennu is also a hazardous asteroid so not only will the mission give researchers and scientists valuable knowledge of this asteroid’s physical and chemical composition, but also insight to its orbits and eventually how we can prepare to deflect dangerous asteroids.

Dante explains that throughout 2017, OSIRIS-REx will be in the ‘survey phase’, using hyperbolic flybys before the spacecraft will be ready to go in orbit around the asteroid in 2018. At that time, OSIRIS-REx will determine the best site for the five minute impact, designed to characterize the asteroid.  

Dr. Lauretta characterizes OSIRIS-REx as a “vacuum cleaner in reverse” – and his story of how this spacecraft works and also how he came to name the mission – is all in the interview.

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2016 Perseid Meteor Shower


Here is a picture from last night. Unfortunately it is a bit out of focus. My wide lens is f4 i.e. not ideal for this type of photography.


NEXT MORNING: Unfortunately there was no stable connection to do much blogging and it was more cloudy than the weather app wanted to admit. It was still an amazing experience! I will post some pictures later but there was too much light pollution and my camera lens was too slow to make a beautiful time lapse.


Just arrived at Beachy Head and set up the camera. It’s beautiful. We already counted ten shooting stars. What a night! Hopefully we can get you some beautiful pictures and a time lapse!


Getting on the road now. Should be at Beachy Head by 11pm BST. Just did a Facebook live video, here.

Tonight (August 12, 2016) will be one of the best nights to view the Perseid Meteor Shower in years. I am taking my camera to shoot a time lapse from Beachy Head and I will try to do some live streaming and certainly as much live blogging as possible.

I will hopefully head out by 10PM BST (2PM PST / 5PM EST) and will update this page throughout the night.

Also, keep an eye on our Twitter timeline:

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Going to Romania for Dorin Prunariu’s 35th space flight anniversary


My friend and Asteroid Day supporter Dorin Prunariu has invited me along with eleven space explorers (many of them are Asteroid Day supporters) to celebrate his 35th space flight anniversary. Dorin flew to space as part of Soyuz 40 which launched on May 14, 1981. This made him the first and only Romanian astronaut.


Update #3 – May 13, 2016

This morning Dorin and I went to the Rock FM radio station in Bucharest and spoke about his anniversary and Asteroid Day. They finished the programme off with Queen’s We Will Rock You which is always a perfect fit! Here is a picture. More later once we meet with the other space explorers.

At Rock FM in Bucharest. From Left to Right: Cristian Hrubaru (Program Director, Rock FM), Ruxandra Mocanu (Discovery Romania), Dorin Prunariu & Grig Richters.
At Rock FM in Bucharest. From Left to Right: Cristian Hrubaru (Program Director, Rock FM), Ruxandra Mocanu (Discovery Romania), Dorin Prunariu & Grig Richters.


Update #2 – May 12, 2016

I arrived in Bucharest and was escorted out of the plane by airport staff which made me feel very official and to be honest I can get used to skipping the line at immigration! The first thing the lady, who escorted me from the plane, told me was: “Welcome to Romania. It’s a wonderful country unless you’re a Vegetarian” to which I said: “Well, that’s a pity. I am a Vegetarian.” We both laughed.

In the evening I met with our Sponsor and Organisers from Discovery Channel Romania and Dorin took us to the Rotary Club Bucharest. Here is a picture of Dorin receiving one of many awards from his friends of the Club that evening:

Dorin Prunariu receives award
Caption in English (Google Translate): 35 years since the first and the only fly in outer space a romanian astronaut. Congratulations Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu
Original Romanian caption: 35 de ani de la primul și singurul zbor în spațiul cosmic al unui astronaut român. Sincere felicitări Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu
Photo Credit: Paul Niculescu-Mizil


Update #1 – May 11, 2016

I will leave for Bucharest tomorrow morning (Thursday, May 12) and take part in the week-long activities organised by him and our media partner Discovery Channel Romania. Several of the activities taking place surrounding his anniversary are related to Asteroid Day and I will use this space to keep you informed about all the exciting things that are happening.



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The Chicxulub crater drilling: On the road with Asteroid Day photographer Max Alexander


Our Photographer-in-residence, Max Alexander heads to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico to cover the drilling of the Chicxulub crater exclusively for Asteroid Day. Follow Max’s journey right here on our blog. We will post his photos along with videos and daily updates. You can request more information and high resolution images by Emailing us. Photo Credit: “Max Alexander / B612 / Asteroid Day”


Geophysicists are returning to Earth’s most famous cosmic bullseye. Around 7 April, from a drill-ship off the coast of Yucatán, Mexico, they will start to penetrate the 200-kilometre-wide Chicxulub crater, which formed 66 million years ago when an enormous asteroid smashed into the planet. The aftermath of the impact obliterated most life on Earth, including the dinosaurs.


May 11, 2016 – Update #7

There’s a mix of media, scientists and returning drillers on the one hour supply boat ride out to the drilling platform. People from lots of backgrounds and different reasons to be on the boat but all knowing they’re heading somewhere very special. Slowly the platform appears on the Gulf of Mexico horizon, expectations are high, and we are probably all thinking about the asteroid that came out of the sky here 66 million years ago.

Basically the platform is a boat raised up about 35 metres above the sea floor by three pylons, each with a large pad that sits directly on the sea floor. We are loaded four at a time in what is called a Billy Pugh basket, with only two vertical ropes keeping us from a plunge into the ocean below, and hoisted aboard by a crane. (https://twitter.com/ESO_Outreach/status/730205670172168192 – that will be in the front!). There’s a real buzz onboard, the greeting is very warm, and the crew are delighted that Tim Peake’s photograph was tweeted from space of where they are drilling. They are now on the lookout for the ISS passing over at night!

The drilling is a collaboration of the British Geological Survey and European Consortium for Ocean Drilling – into an inner peak ring that extends about 40 km from ground zero. One essential reason to choose this part of the impact crater is that it’s at a depth that can be reached. The target is to get to 1500 metres by June 6th, the cut-off date due to the hurricane season, and currently they are at 825 metres. The inner ring starts at about 650 metres, so they are already drilling into this buried treasure.

We only have about three hours onboard, there’s a lot to photograph, and the time flies by. Three cores wrapped in thick protective plastic are bought out from the refrigeration unit for me to photograph, and handled with suitable reverence – each one from a different depth and clearly all very different – sedimentary, impact melt, and breccia (which is a hybrid, including granite). The two lead scientists, Professor Joanna Morgan from Imperial College London and Dr Sean Gulick from the University of Texas at Austin discuss the samples while I take photographs. They lose themselves in these priceless jewels and what they mean. They do tell me that while I was shooting they actually made a provisional conclusion about what they were looking at, for the morphology of the impact crater – science in action!

The scientists are extremely excited about the bounty they have, and Professor Morgan does tell me that she can’t sleep for thinking about the science models that are coming out of what they are seeing. Their discoveries are sure to rewrite this part of Earth’s history, unlocking secrets for both for geology and life on Earth, and underpins the serious damage asteroids do to our planet. (More about the drilling progress and its preliminary findings can be found here).

I then shoot some of the onboard labs, samples, diamond tipped drills, and the drilling operation itself – complete with two metre high 100 kg Americans working around the clock, with methodical precision. Finally portraits before the scientists have to rush off for a live radio show. It’s all over very quickly – we are hoisted back onto the supply boat, and I am positioned in the Billy Pugh basket so as to get a high shot overlooking the drilling area.

Tomorrow I have the drive to Cancun for the flight home, and just the one shot of another cenote (sinkhole) to get on the way back. I will also visit nearby Chichen Itza – the ancient Mayan World Heritage site.

So it’s been quite a blast – so to speak – and certainly one to remember. A very big thank you to Asteroid Day for sponsoring the trip, and in particular to Grig Richters and Danica Remy for all their support. Look out for my photographs on the BBC website over the coming month or so, in national and international publications, and on the Asteroid Day website.

Hasta pronto!


May 10, 2016 – Update #6

This geological period corresponds to the extinction of the dinosaurs, and 75% of life on Earth – and also the Chicxulub impact.
This geological period corresponds to the extinction of the dinosaurs, and 75% of life on Earth – and also the Chicxulub impact.

Today was museum day. First up was Museo del cater de Chicxulub, near the city of Merida. Yes, the region has it’s own impact crater museum. I was hoping to photograph quartz samples from the original impact; however, what I was after was somehow lost in translation from the phone call, and they only had replicas. No matter – I had a good look around the museum and learnt a lot more about the catastrophic events that happened here. The museum is part of the Yucatán Science and Technology Park(Parque Cientifica y Technologico de Yucatan), where it is hoped that some of the best core samples from the offshore drilling will eventually return, to a new core laboratory, after they have first been to Bremen in Germany. This seems a very good way of enhancing science locally.

Having taken sympathy on me, the staff gave me a complimentary pass to an exhibition on the extinction of dinosaurs at El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Merida. It turned out to be a useful trip as they had several iridium rock samples in their permanent collection, which I was allowed to photograph. The discovery of an iridium layer around the world was the smoking gun that the Chicxulub impact led to the extinction of the dinosaurs (recent research shows that they were in decline for 50 million years, but the impact was very likely the tipping point), and over 75% of life on Earth. The iridium hypothesis is not universally accepted in the scientific community; however, I think it’s fair to say that there it is currently a very good consensus. The offshore drilling of the peak ring may well shed light on this part of the puzzle.

Dinosaurs and space. You can’t really go wrong when you put those two things together!


May 9, 2016 – Update #5

Today Max posted about Tim Peake’s tweet, here.


May 8, 2016 – Update #4


May 7, 2016 – Update #3

Day three here in the heart of the impact crater (well, sitting on top of it) and the alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m again. Ouch!

It’s back to ground zero to catch the magic hour – that sumptuous period of light, at both ends of the day, around sunrise and sunset. As seen from space it’s what’s called the terminator – the transition from night to day. I want to first catch the dawn from the pier at Chicxulub (you want to know how to pronounce this Mayan name, right? I’ve been wondering myself for awhile, so I asked the locals. Chic, shoe, lube – is about close enough) — that is rammed full of locals fishing at 5:00 in the morning. The dawn seems a good metaphor for me — as 66 million years ago it was the start of a new day for our planet. I’m always looking for little vignettes that underpin the story, hopefully without overegging the pudding. Say things falling out of the sky. Maybe it’s the birds diving into the water for fish (birds evolved from dinosaurs…), or it’s a threatening looking cloud that gives the impression of an asteroid heading this way. Well, to my mind anyhow!

What follows next is what is known as bounce light — just before sunrise, when the sunlight bounces off the atmosphere. It’s a beautiful soft light, still directional with some measure of light and shade, with warm colours — often magenta, depending on how much dust is in the atmosphere. It’s really my favourite backdrop to the theatre that is playing out. In exactly the opposite direction to the Sun I can see the Earth’s shadow extending out into the atmosphere, and beyond that unseen into space — a dark blue band, drained of most of its colour, right down on the horizon. This shadow descends quickly, in concert with the rising Sun. Above that the rosy pink colours of the Belt of Venus, and then back into blue again. Magic!

I don’t normally photograph sunrises and sunsets themselves (does that sound a bit pompous!) but the Sun reminds us that we live in the solar system, in our cosmic habitat. I have to work quickly as things are changing fast, and shoot both towards the Sun, and then the other way, using the Sun’s warm and still soft light, before it hardens up. All the while looking for lady luck, whose mercy I am at — people on the pier doing something that fits into my picture, a boat passing, some drama in the sky…

That phase of the morning over in a flash, I carrying on looking for pictures for another hour or so, as the Sun rises ever higher. Well, while the Earth spins actually, (while we’re in cosmic mode here). Appearances can be deceptive! It’s important to give a sense of place here at Chicxulub, and using the coastline is an obvious way, so I focus in on that. If time allows, I will return to places several times to get better photographs, especially when at the hands of mother nature. Knowing what is coming helps. So I will be back again this evening, except everything will be in reverse.


May 6, 2016 – Update #2

Yaluts'il cenote (sinkhole)/Yucatan Peninsula/Sinkholes trace outline of impact crater peak ring. Credit: Max Alexander / B612 / Asteroid Day
Yaluts’il cenote (sinkhole)/Yucatan Peninsula/Sinkholes trace outline of impact crater peak ring. Credit: Max Alexander / B612 / Asteroid Day

Day two on the Chicxulub shoot and it’s an early start. Up before dawn and a drive to Chicxulub Playa – ground zero when the asteroid struck 66 million years ago. The landscape has much changed in that time, with the Yucatan Peninsula being thrust upwards to its current position. But this is it – where the asteroid struck, initially gouging out a giant chasm in the Earth, and changing the history of the planet. It wiped out 75% of life, and also of course the dinosaurs. It’s also a major reason why humans had the chance to evolve.

Back to the hotel for breakfast, then I meet up with Samuel – my Mayan guide for the day. By lunchtime we’ve made the drive through remote villages to a cenote – Spanish for sinkhole. These limestone holes, at about 60 km radius from ground zero, trace out the southern boundary of the ‘peak ring’ – the same raised inner ring that is being drilled into on the offshore platform to the north.

Samuel explains to me that ancient Mayans used to live in these cenotes – which are really a network of caves, and where the soft limestone has collapsed – to escape the sun. They did this so as not be ruled by is diurnal motion. They wanted to eat, work, sleep – to live their lives – by their own needs and their own timetable.

There’s a lot of contrast from the harsh sun in my sinkhole picture, so I get some safe shots and wait for the sun to set – for the flatter light I’m after. In the meantime I join the locals and tourists for an indulgent swim in the sinkhole’s warm waters. Hopefully my Asteroid Day sponsors won’t think I’m being lax with my timetable…


May 5, 2016 – Mexico, Update #1

It seemed entirely appropriate that we had a very bumpy ride coming into land at Cancun Airport – here on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico — where a 10+ km asteroid collided with the Earth 66 million years ago, and lead directly to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Dark skies overhead from a tropical storm welcomed me, along with a torrential downpour.

I then drove the 300 km to Chicxulub on the Yucatan coast — which is ground zero for the asteroid impact, and near the offshore drilling platform that is currently taking core samples for both the geology and the biology of this catastrophic event. The impact crater is at least 180 km across; not quite the distance I travelled, but it gave me a very good idea of it’s extent – along with it’s 20 km depth. And it was striking to know that the crater was buried beneath me – covered up by nature over the millions of years that have passed.

Credit: Max Alexander / B612 / Asteroid Day


May 5, 2016 – Mexico, Max just landed:

Max arrives in Mexico, at airportlq
Credit: Max Alexander / B612 / Asteroid Day



May 3, 2016  Max in London, starts his journey

Max Alexander’s first vlog. Before getting on the road!



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ArticleAsteroid Day Exclusives

Tim Peake tweets to us from space


Exciting news! The British astronaut Tim Peake has Tweeted a photograph he took from the International Space Station of the Yucatan Peninsula – on my suggestion – while the scientific drilling is taking place. This would have required quite a bit of planning, for the ISS to pass over, and when Tim had some free time. He really scored a bullseye with the impact site smack in the middle of the picture – and the drilling platform 30 km offshore. You can really imagine an asteroid coming in from space in that picture, and creating a 180 km crater — which would be a big chunk of the peninsula.

As part of my work for the UK Space Agency, I have been photographing Tim for the past few years — training in Germany and Russia, and also for his visits to the UK. While Tim has been on the ISS I have been giving him general in-orbit photography training for his mission. Specifically I have suggested he photographs impact craters on the Earth, and I provided him with a list of those targets, with the help of Asteroid Day team members Alan Fitzsimmons and Mark Boslough, including the Yucatan Peninsula. This is part of the close relationship that Asteroid Day has with the European Space Agency, and their work with asteroids.

Happy days!

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