Asteroid Deflection Stars in IMAX Film

An IMAX documentary was filmed at Aerospace’s El Segundo facility to highlight Aerospace’s near-Earth objects (NEOs) expertise on planetary defense and asteroid deflection.
IMAX doc clapboard picture

Although it sounds like a TV movie, near-Earth objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets really do pose a national security threat. In fact, in a 2018 Pew Research Study, 62% of Americans felt that one of NASA’s top priorities should be monitoring asteroids and other objects that could collide with Earth. Thankfully, major NEO impacts are uncommon, but their consequences can be severe and cause widespread devastation. A key starting point in deflecting an oncoming NEO hit is awareness so that the Air Force, with The Aerospace Corporation’s support, can launch a mission to either deflect or disrupt the object.

NEO Expert on Planetary Defense in IMAX Film

One of the leading subject matter experts in this field, Dr. Nahum Melamed, conducted an asteroid deflection simulator course in the STARS mission operations center on July 13 so that Aerospace employees and other scientists could learn more about the challenging topic of asteroid deflection.

Nahum Melamed teaches NEO class
Dr. Nahum Melamed prepares to discuss NEO defense as the film crew sets up a shot for an IMAX documentary.

A crew filmed Melamed teaching this class to include in an upcoming IMAX** documentary focused on planetary defense and showing how it would work by illustrating the techniques of asteroid deflection. Producers for IMAX approached The Aerospace Corporation to film a segment on NEOs due to our expertise in planetary defense after producers attended Melamed’s class on asteroid mitigation.

The film’s writer and one of its producers, Philip Groves said, “While doing research for our documentary, I discovered through Dr. Bill Ailor and Dr. Nahum Melamed that [The] Aerospace Corporation is a vibrant home for thought-leadership in planetary defense. Having Aerospace in our film will show a world audience the threat of asteroids is being taken very seriously.”

Aerospace CEO Steve Isakowitz noted, “Through our participation in this documentary, Aerospace is shaping the future by educating the public about the importance of planetary defense. We also hope to inspire the next generation of scientists to create innovative ways of protecting our planet.”

NEO Mission Simulator Helps Gain Insights on Asteroid Deflection

In this class, students used a NEO mission simulator developed by Aerospace and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to gain insights on the challenges involved with the high-energy kinetic-impact method of asteroid deflection. Students selected a NEO from a group of simulated objects created by JPL, identified feasible launch windows, and designed a deflection mission. Challenged with various threat scenarios, students tried to find feasible deflection solutions and learn about abilities and gaps in mitigating asteroid threats.  

Melamed Isakowitz in iLab picture
Melamed demonstrates the KI concept in iLab with Aerospace’s Villahermosa, Steve Isakowitz, and JPL’s Paul Chodas.

The crew also filmed a segment at iLab where Isakowitz joined Dr. Randy Villahermosa, general manager of iLab, along with Melamed and Paul Chodas, manager of JPL’s Center for NEO Studies, in discussing a specific asteroid deflection concept. Melamed and Chodas collaborated on the development of a NEO Deflection App, a simulation tool that shows the basic physics of an asteroid deflection mission. The asteroid deflection concept they discussed was a kinetic impactor (KI) spacecraft that would collide with an asteroid in deep space to alter its trajectory so it would veer off course and avoid Earth.

Read more about the options, risks, and costs involved in trying to divert or destroy a NEO in Melamed’s paper, Planetary Defense Against Asteroid Strikes: Risks, Options, And Costs.

**IMAX is a registered trademark.