Faculty Voices: Defending the Planet in Real Life | MSU Today


Seth Jacobson is Assistant Professor at Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Natural Sciences. As a planetologist, Jacobson studies the planets, moons, asteroids and comets of the solar system as well as other planetary systems with the tools of celestial mechanics, geophysics and geochemistry.

This Friday Netflix will release the film “Don’t look up” starring Hollywood star Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as a couple of graduate students from Michigan State University’s Department of Astronomy, trying to save the world from a deadly comet.

I never imagined having the opportunity to say this, but I play the character of Leo, Dr. Randall Mindy – in real life. Kind of.


Extract from the movie “Don’t Look Up”. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, NASA launched humanity’s first spacecraft designed to test planetary defense technology. The DART mission will demonstrate the kinetic deflection technique by impacting the moon from a small (and non-threatening) asteroid system. By measuring how the asteroid moon is deflected by the DART mission, we will learn about the effectiveness of this planetary defense technique, the scientific properties of asteroid surfaces and interiors, and the engineering systems required to conduct such a mission. This is a major step in the transformation of humanity towards a planetary civilization protecting itself from interplanetary threats.

Most famous is that an asteroid impactor ended the reign of the dinosaurs, but interplanetary bombardment is a pervasive danger to life like ours. Earth’s moon surface records this threat in the form of craters, which document a planetary bombardment lifespan. While most of the corresponding craters on Earth have been erased over time due to plate tectonics, Earth’s geological record from 4.5 billion years ago shows that the threat of catastrophic impacts is very real. But for the first time in this story, the earthlings, including me, are getting ready to do something.

I haven’t always seen myself as a planetary advocate and, to be honest, I still don’t see myself that way. Instead, professionally, I am first and foremost a planetary scientist, and lead the Planetary Makerspace at MSU. Our goals are to learn more about the history of our solar system and its most important planet: Earth. To do this, we study the formation and evolution of exoplanets, giant planets, terrestrial planets, moons, comets and asteroids. It was the study of asteroids that connected me to the DART mission and planetary defense, and asteroids are also at the start of my own career.

“The vermin of the sky! “

For much of the second half of the 20th century, asteroids were viewed by most astronomers as boring rocks in space and of no scientific interest. But at the start of this century, we knew on the contrary that asteroids are among the most dynamic objects in the solar system and that they are time capsules containing a geological record of the birth of our solar system. For my part and my doctorate. thesis, I described and calculated the role of non-gravitational effects in their dynamic evolution.

Seth Jacobson sitting on a seat in a movie theater

Jacobson at a premiere screening of “Don’t Look Up”. Photo by Émilie Lorditch

While asteroids are no longer just a nuisance to astronomers, it’s still unexpected to find yourself played in a movie by DiCaprio and Lawrence. Their discovery puts them in the driver’s seat as they attempt to defend the planet – if only the politicians, the media and the multi-billionaires would allow them. I’ll let you find out for yourself if they are successful, but it’s worth noting here that the film is a powerful allegory of how humanity is (or not) tackling anthropogenic climate change.

Director Adam McKay deftly shows how the same conflicts of interest that prevent addressing the less tangible threat of climate change seem comically absurd in the face of the more tangible threat of interplanetary impact. Fortunately, we do not live in the “Do Not Search” universe and we can work together to avert a global catastrophe, as evidenced by global participation in the DART mission.

Banner image courtesy of Netflix.



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