Bill Nye’s Crash Course on Asteroids

International Asteroid Day is a nascent awareness campaign with The Science Guy himself on board. Here’s why he wants you to care, too.

The dinosaurs were wiped out by asteroids, but we don’t have to be. Bill Nye and designer Thomas Romer are creating Kick Asteroid posters to get more people thinking about planetary defense.

Asteroid Day is a new conversation about a very old planetary threat. Since 2015, an international group of nearly 200 scientists, artists, nobel laureates, and non-profit leaders has made it an occasion to raise awareness around “near-Earth objects.”

Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, is one of them. “Near-Earth objects pose a real threat to humankind; an impact has an exceptionally low probability, but an almost unimaginably high consequence,” he says.

His interest stems from conversations with The Planetary Society cofounder Carl Sagan. “I took one class from Carl Sagan; it changed my life,” says Nye. “He talked about the significance of the Tunguska Event, a big-deal airburst that got little international attention. Most people you meet don’t know anything about it.” (If you’re among them, the Tunguska Event was a 1908 collision in which a building-sized asteroid obliterated 800 square miles of forest in Siberia with 185 times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.)

“Once you grasp its significance… well, it’s always on your mind,” Nye says. Asteroid Day, June 30, commemorates that historic day.

“It’s the anniversary of understanding that we’re in a cosmic shooting gallery. We’ve got to learn to duck and dodge.”

The international holiday is celebrated with a live stream of educational programming and over 2,500 events in 193 countries, ranging from a Q&A with astronauts and scientists at the National Air and Space Museum to a film screening in Berlin to a concert at the Gwacheon National Science Museum in South Korea.

Aeronautical engineer and former NASA Astronaut Rusty Schweickart advocating for Asteroid Day at the Starmus science and art festival. Credit: Max Alexander.

Nye and his colleagues’ contribution to Asteroid Day is Kick Asteroid, a poster that illustrates the history of asteroids, as well as ideas for how we might address the threat they pose in the future.

Early sketches of Romer’s forthcoming poster design.

Designer Thomas Romer of Chop Shop is developing the graphics alongside The Planetary Society’s chief scientist, Bruce Betts. “Showing the three largest historic impacts illustrates how massive they can be — and then the most recent one shows how common they can be,” says Romer. “Together, it conveys to the viewer, ‘What does the next one look like?’ We answer that in panel five, where we deflect it.”

The project aims to educate and inspire conversations about funding essential research in this field.

The Planetary Society cites a recent report from the National Science and Technology Council, which finds current detection and prevention efforts to be inadequate defenses against near-Earth objects. Though NASA officials are confident that they’ve found all of the near-Earth asteroids that could cause global damage and have verified that they’re not headed our way, smaller asteroids — which could still wreak havoc across hundreds of square miles — are not reliably identified and monitored.

An artistic rendering of NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, which set out to collect data about asteroids orbiting the sun along with Earth.

And while scientists are optimistic about deflection technologies, they’re hamstrung by limited resources. Potential asteroid-thwarting solutions range from “the slow gravity tractor (spacecraft gravity pulls the asteroid), to the mid-range kinetic impactor (slam one or more spacecraft into the asteroid), to developing techniques such as laser ablation (vaporizing rock to create jets that push the asteroid),” The Planetary Society’s Bruce Betts summarizes.

Even if we’re lucky enough to go unscathed, Nye says, investments in space science ultimately improve life on Earth.

“The returns on space investments are very high. Things we take for granted these days — things like worldwide communication, weather forecasting, and military situational awareness — would not be possible without space assets. And then there are the extraordinary technologies that just emerge naturally. We wouldn’t have the internet or modern computers without space exploration.”

— Katheryn Thayer


Do your part to defend the Earth (or at least help Bill Nye and his colleagues make a cool poster). The Kick Asteroid campaign is live through July 26, 2018.