Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009

Houston in the Cometary Crosshairs

Patricia Reiff returned from India just in time to destroy Houston.

ReiffActually, the culprit is an imaginary comet, and the razing of Rice’s home city is only make-believe. For now.

Reiff, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute, was in India to install two Discovery Domes — completely immersive domed planetariums that utilize digital technology and can be installed in fixed facilities or in mobile, inflatable domes. The domes, which can bring lessons about the heavens to some of the most remote places on Earth, have been delivered to 75 locations on six continents since Reiff and her partners at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) built the first digital fixed dome in 1998 and the first portable one in 2003.

The imaginary destruction of Houston was part of the somber message of Reiff’s latest production: a planetarium show titled “Impact Earth,” which premiered at Burke Baker Planetarium at HMNS in Impact Earth PosterMay and currently is in worldwide release. The show, funded by NASA and produced by Rice and HMNS, demonstrates the dangers asteroids and comets pose to the planet. In the climax, viewers get an up-close-and-personal look at what would happen if a comet the size of Shoemaker-Levy 9, which slammed into Jupiter in 1994, landed in the Gulf of Mexico. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be pretty.

Asteroids hitting Earth are the stuff of B-movie legend, but that makes the peril no less real. “There have been Hollywood movies about comets and asteroids hitting Earth, like ‘Deep Impact’ and ‘Armageddon,’ but they were not fully scientific in their explanations and animations,” said Carolyn Sumners, director of astronomy at the museum and an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at Rice.

Reiff said “Impact Earth” sets the record straight. “Our program has been vetted by numerous

experts on asteroids, and even though they don’t always agree with each other, they agreed our presentation is accurate.”

The show explores major impacts in Earth’s history and recreates a meteorite fall on the Great Plains 10,000 years ago, the explosive Tunguska event in Siberia in 1908 and the impact that contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The production also takes viewers to visit asteroid hunters at the museum’s George Observatory to see how they locate asteroids that might pose a threat to the planet.

"Our program has been vetted by numerous experts on asteroids, and, even though they don’t always agree with each other, they agreed our presentation is accurate."

One such space rock is already raising concerns. On Friday, April 13, 2029, the asteroid Apophis will come within 18,000 miles of Earth — closer than the geostationary satellites that monitor the weather and carry television signals. The impact of an asteroid the size of Apophis could wipe out a city or cause a devastating tsunami.

That gave Reiff and her crew the perfect excuse to visualize just such an event for the finale of “Impact Earth.”

She also expects Rice and HMNS to continue to impact the globe through their collaboration. “This is a partnership that’s been very, very deep over the years,” Reiff said. “Twenty years ago, I helped design the sundial that’s at the museum, and Rice helped the museum get George Observatory. There’s a long history of cooperation between Rice and the museum.”