Who will defend Earth? Interview with M Moidel, filmmaker of ‘Planetary Defense’ documentary

In December 2008, when talking about Earth-threatening asteroids, I referred to Planetary Defense, an excellent documentary film made by Canadian filmmaker M Moidel, who runs the Space Viz production company.

Since its 2007 release, the film has inspired discussion and debate. It had its global premiere at the UN Headquarters, and been screened at high level meetings of people who share this concern. It has also been broadcast on United Nations TV and various TV channels, and is available on DVD.

Synopsis: Scientists and the military have only recently awakened to the notion that impacts with Earth do happen. “Planetary Defense” meets with both the scientific and military communities to study our options to mitigate an impact from asteroids and comets, collectively known as NEO’s (Near Earth Objects). Who will save Earth?

In the aftermath of the meteor that exploded in the skies over Chelyabinsk, in Siberia, Russia, on 15 February 2013, I interviewed Toronto-based M Moidel by email on the continuing relevance of his film. Excerpts from that interview:

How did you choose this topic for a scientific documentary?

I take a great interest in writing/filming subject matter which is so big, that it should shape the way we go about our daily lives, like if we contacted extra-terrestrials (ETs), or colonized Mars. Those big events would have major consequences on our re-thinking of our real place in the Cosmos.

The threat of being wiped out by an asteroid is similarly humbling. Most of us don’t think about Extinction Level Events on a day-to-day basis and what we might do about it.

How realistic are the prospects of a large enough asteroid colliding with our Earth?

David Morrison (former NASA Space Scientist) said in my film, Planetary Defense: “If we actually found an asteroid on a collision course, we could predict the impact decades in advance. And we believe we have the technology in our space program to deflect it, so that the event doesn’t even happen. I could study earthquakes all my life, and I might be able to improve my ability to predict them, but I could never develop a technology to stop an earthquake from happening. In studying asteroids, I not only have the potential to predict the next calamity, but actually to avoid it.”

Interview clip with NASA scientist David Morrison:

I like to present the options where we have the ability to change our destiny (or not act upon it at all). That’s a story that interests me. (Besides, it’s the ultimate literary conflict: Man vs. Nature!) It’s that ability to do something about possible calamity (as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Frederick P. Rose Director of the American Museum of Natural History, says in my film) that leaves the viewers “scared for our future, but empowered to do something about it”.

What was the most surprising element you uncovered during your information research for this documentary?

There were several surprising factoids:
• The fact that only a handful of people, a hundred or so around the Earth, are working on the NEO Mitigation Hazard issue.
• The fact that so few people think about something that is unlikely to happen in our lifetime — but the consequences of not doing something about it are too horrible.
• The fact that we COULD do something about it, unlike the dinosaurs, because we have a Space Programme!
• The fact that there is so little day-to-day concern or knowledge about it among ordinary (non-technical) people.
• The fact that so little (sustained or pulsing) force is required to move a big asteroid or comet (once it is de-spun) so that it misses the Earth entirely.

As Arthur C Clarke concluded in the last interview clip in Planetary Defense (before the Epilogue): “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space programme!”

What were the reactions to your film ‘Planetary Defense’ when it was first released in 2007?

Prior to the final edit, I sought out editorial reviews from the key participants. The scientists who participated in it also advised me as they each received advance copies. I listened to each expert and made appropriate changes so I knew the content would be spot-on.

The reaction, upon release, was spectacular! There are four major reviewers of educational content in the United States. To get a review from any one of them is not easy. “Planetary Defense” received two of the four with simultaneous reviews in both “Booklist” (Chicago) and “The Library Journal” (NYC).

Following that, the United Nations TV premiered it understanding immediately how this is a global issue. It has aired in Canada a few years running.

The infamy was not comparable to the effect of Orson Welles’ (1938) CBS radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” (1898) elicited on the public; but I was happy with the appreciation from both the scientific and educational communities.

Of course the comments speak for themselves – see: http://www.spaceviz.com/img/Planetary_Defense_comments.pdf

Spaceguard is a scientifically credible concept, yet it has not received too much political support. Why?

For two reasons. One, policy makers have limited budgets. They ask: “Who was the last person to die from an asteroid impact? After the laughing subsides, the vote is taken (if any) that this issue can be kicked down the line for a few more years, to the next administrations’ budget.

Two, the second reason is also sad. Humans have very little memory for horrible events unless it happened to them, as a people or a country.

For example, outside Indian Ocean rim countries and Pacific island nations (that are exposed to tsunami hazard), how many westerners really empathize and think regularly about tsunamis? About 250,000 people perished in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and yet it’s a bygone memory outside those affected areas.

Planetary Defense, a SpaceViz Documentary by M Moidel

Planetary Defense, a SpaceViz Documentary by M Moidel

Can the Siberian meteorite on 15 February 2013 change this?

Siberia just experienced an actual airburst, a one in a 100 year event. This time around, unlike the 1908 Tunguska event, there were plenty of video cameras to record the event from all angles. After going viral for not even a week, the story has died down from the news (not enough devastation or death?) and people are going about their daily business.

Although the Russian government is now calling for Space-faring nations to cooperate and work on a Space Defense or Planetary Defense, it might take a few more near-misses, on a regular basis, to make any real ‘impact’ in human beings acquiescence to this threat!

What, in your imagination, is the best thing that can happen for political leaders to take NEO impact threat more seriously?

Well, it almost happened with the airburst over Siberia. As I said, we have short attention spans (when not enough death and destruction) or when it doesn’t happen to “us”. So either more regular, deadly impacts are required — or hopefully, films like mine can wake up a few more policy makers before all that death and destruction occurs. I’m doing my part…

‘Planetary Defense’ sounds a bit Utopian on a highly divided planet?

Well, that’s an excellent question. But at the risk of repeating myself, people have short attention spans — and shorter memories when it doesn’t affect them directly.

What’s odd is it does affect all of us directly — and we can do something about it! It is not cost-prohibitive either to search for NEOs, test deflection mechanisms or actually engage in a defensive mission.

Currently, NEO searches are being done on minimal budgets. The how-to’s are being thought out by some of the greatest minds on the planet. The military is (also) awakening to the threat.

The recent airburst over Siberia has fueled Russian interest in Space Defense technology. Decades of planning, command and control, NEO characterizations and deflection techniques — all these are critical in mitigating impacts with the Earth. All these aspects are covered in my film (aside from an overview of the subject). The road map is in place!

For all these reasons and more, my film is still very timely! So yes, we can all come together to work on this because it’s not cost-prohibitive (and the cost of doing nothing is simply…unthinkable).

Sir Arthur C Clarke, who gave you an interview, called Planetary Defense ‘one of the most important documentaries made’. Why?

Humanity’s view of ourselves changed in 1968 after seeing Earth as a whole planet floating in the darkness of Space (Apollo 8 photographs). From then on, we started thinking a bit more globally.

Perhaps it won’t take a deadly impact nor a Utopian dream. Perhaps knowledge of the threat from ‘out there’ might finally imbue logic upon the denizens of Earth and we can act as one world (or at least one people) in the cause of self-preservation and the continuation of ‘life as we know it’. There is no “Plan B for Planet Earth”.

Apollo 8's enduring legacy (image courtesy NASA)

Earthrise: Apollo 8's enduring legacy (image courtesy NASA)

Early Warning for Planet Earth: How to avoid mother of all Tsunamis!

Next tsunami could begin with this...

Next tsunami could begin with this...

Today marks the 4th anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

The tsunami was triggered by a massive quake that erupted off the coast of Sumatra, and 6 miles deep under the Indian Ocean’s seabed. The estimated 9.1 to 9.3 magnitude earthquake was the strongest in 40 years and the fourth largest in a century. The U.S. Geological Survey later estimated that the amount of energy released was equivalent to the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

Despite a lag of up to several hours between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami, nearly all affected people were taken completely by surprise. There were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis or to warn those living on the Indian Ocean rim areas. This cost the lives of over 225,000 people in 11 countries — many of who could have lived if only they had a timely warning to rush inland.

In the past four years, there have been various efforts to set up such early warning systems – as well as effective ways to deliver credible warnings to large numbers of people quickly. These are meant to provide 24/7 coverage to Indian Ocean countries in the same way the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre has been covering Pacific Ocean countries for many years.

All this is necessary – but not sufficient – to guard ourselves against future tsunamis. For it’s not just earthquakes undersea that can trigger tsunamis. An asteroid impact could trigger the mother of all tsunamis that can impact coastal areas all over the planet.

An asteroid that struck the Earth 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs and 70 per cent of the species then living on the planet. The destruction of the Tunguska region of Siberia in June 1908 – whose centenary was marked this year – is known to have been caused by the impact of a large extraterrestrial object.

Space artist David Hardy's vision...

Space artist David Hardy's vision...

When discussing the possible consequences of asteroid impacts on Earth, more attention has been given to the destruction it can cause by such a falling piece of the sky hitting inhabited areas of land. Some people seem to be comforted by the fact that two thirds of the planet’s surface is ocean — thus increasing changes that an impact would likely happen at sea.

In fact, we should worry more. Duncan Steel, an authority on the subject, has done some terrifying calculations. He took a modest sized space rock, 200 metres in diameter, colliding with Earth at a typical speed of 19 kilometres per second. As it is brought to a halt, it releases kinetic energy in an explosion equal to 600 megatons of TNT — 10 times the yield of the most powerful nuclear weapon tested (underground). Even though only about 10 per cent of this energy would be transferred to the tsunami, such waves will carry this massive energy over long distances to coasts far away. They can therefore cause much more diffused destruction than would have resulted from a land impact. In the latter, the interaction between the blast wave and the irregularities of the ground (hills, buildings, trees) limits the area damaged. On the ocean, the wave propagates until it runs into land.

Scientists have been talking about asteroid impact danger for decades. Arthur C Clarke suggested – in his 1973 science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama – that as soon as the technology permitted, we should set up powerful radar and optical search systems to detect Earth-threatening objects. The name he suggested was Spaceguard, which, together with Spacewatch, has now been widely accepted.

In November 2008, a group of the world’s leading scientists urged the United Nations to establish an international network to search the skies for asteroids on a collision course with Earth. The spaceguard system would also be responsible for deploying spacecraft that could destroy or deflect incoming objects.

The group – which includes the Royal Society president Sir Martin Rees and environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell – said that the UN needed to act as a matter of urgency. Although an asteroid collision with the planet is a relatively remote risk, the consequences of a strike would be devastating.

Not if, but when...

Not if, but when...

The International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation, chaired by former American astronaut Russell Schweickart, urged: “The international community must begin work now on forging three impact prevention elements – warning, deflection technology and a decision-making process – into an effective defence against a future collision.”

Read more media coverage and commentary at:
The Guardian, 7 Dec 2008: UN is told that Earth needs an asteroid shield
World Changing, 10 Dec 2008: Giant asteroids and international security

This is exactly the message in an excellent documentary called Planetary Defence made by Canadian filmmaker M Moidel, who runs the Space Viz production company. Over the past many months, the film has been screened at the United Nations, on various TV channels and at high level meetings of people who share this concern.

Its main thrust: Scientists and the military have only recently awakened to the notion that asteroid impacts with Earth do happen. Planetary Defense meets with both the scientific and military communities to study our options to mitigate an impact. It makes the pivotal point: “Civilization is ill prepared for the inevitable. It’s not if an impact will happen with the Earth, it’s when!”

In such an event, the film asks, who will save Earth? The 48 minute documentary explores the efforts underway to detect and mitigate an impact with Earth from asteroids and comets, collectively known as NEO’s (Near Earth Objects).

Watch the trailer of Planetary Defence on YouTube:

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Director, American Museum of Natural History, in New York, says: “Planetary Defense, the film, is a documentary that explores how ill-prepared we are to prevent our own extinction from asteroid and comet impacts. Filmmaker M Moidel interviewed all the right people, asked them all the right questions, and leaves the viewer scared for our future, but empowered to do something about it.”

Read more about the film at Space Viz Productions website

Although we have never met, I have been in email contact with M Moidel for several years. I know how deeply committed he is to each of his documentary projects. Working on incredibly tight budgets and performing multiple tasks on his own, this brilliant Canadian has made some eminently accessible, timely and captivating documentaries on ‘big picture’ topics such as the search for intelligent life in the universe, the future of space exploration and, of course, coping with asteroid impacts.

Sir Arthur C Clarke, interviewed on some of Moidel’s films, including Planetary Defence, has highly commended his efforts.

Sir Arthur, whose Sri Lankan diving school was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, wrote a few days after the disaster:

“Contrary to popular belief, we science fiction writers don’t predict the future — we try to prevent undesirable futures. In the wake of the Asian tsunami, scientists and governments are scrambling to set up systems to monitor and warn us of future hazards from the sea.

“Let’s keep an eye on the skies even as we worry about the next hazard from the depths of the sea.”