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Deep Impact Wins Science Kudos

7 May 1998 7:30 pm
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It's been almost 5 years since comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke up and smashed into Jupiter, but shock waves from the impacts are still reverberating around the Hollywood solar system. Tomorrow, Steven Spielberg unleashes Deep Impact, the fifth comet-strikes-Earth film made in the past 20 years and, scientists who've seen it say, by far the most technically accurate one.

According to NASA's impact hazard impresario, David Morrison of Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, Deep Impact does a bang-up job in realism and technical accuracy. The film "gets high marks for understanding the nature of the impact threat and for the quality of its special effects imagery," he says, thanks in part to a flock of technical advisers that included the late Gene Shoemaker of Comet Shoemaker-Levy fame. Both the comet impact in the Atlantic and the ensuing tsunami crashing into the East Coast are strikingly authentic looking, Morrison says. The folks at New Mexico's Sandia National Laboratories, who have been simulating comet crashes and tsunamis with a supercomputer, are also impressed. "They produced superior visuals that appear remarkably realistic," says Sandia simulator Arthurine Breckenridge.

In contrast, this year's other big-budget treatment of an almost-end-of-world-by-impact scenario, Armageddon, stumbles right off the bat, says Morrison. Its asteroid is the size of Texas, a million times more massive than any asteroid that could threaten Earth. And, absurdly, no one notices it until a few weeks before impact.

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