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Take This Class: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s—the End of Humanity?

Students Learn Science and Skills With ‘Deep Impact’ in Asteroid Collision Course

By Maggie Haslam

Professor talks with students in class

Alden Bobofchak '26 and Professor Jessica Sunshine share theories on the altitude of airbursts (the explosion that occurs when an asteroid hits the earth’s atmosphere) as part “Collisions in Space: The Threat of Asteroid Impacts,” an I-Series course for undergraduates.

Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle

At the peak of his Hollywood career, it seemed like nothing could stop Bruce Willis. Formidable foes like Cold War assassins, Hans Gruber, even death itself were no match against the wisecracking Willis, with a notable exception: asteroids. (Spoiler alert: He dies to save humanity.)

But University of Maryland students taking “Collisions in Space: The Threat of Asteroid Impacts” are learning that the chances of losing America’s most beloved action hero to a rock hurdling toward Earth are slim; and if Earth—and Willis—are in the crosshairs of an oncoming “global killer,” we might not even know it's coming, until it’s too late.

Professor Sunshine
Sunshine, an expert in comets, asteroids and meteorites, has been involved in several planetary missions for NASA, including Lucy, the first mission to explore the Jupiter Trojan asteroids.

“We know [the location] of about 95% of the really big asteroids,” said astronomy Professor Jessica Sunshine, who has alternated teaching the course with Senior Lecturer Melissa Hayes-Gehrke and Professor Derek Richardson since 2019. “But smaller, (SECU) Stadium-sized asteroids, the ones that would take out a city or even half a continent, we still don’t know where most of those are. Sometimes we only see them if they’re really close.”

“Collisions in Space” is a crash course covering the complex facets of cosmic run-ins with near-Earth asteroids (NEA). Throughout the semester, students gain a deeper understanding of planetary science, how astronomers locate and classify NEAs, the ramifications of an asteroid or comet impact, and the economic, political and social costs of mounting a defense—or doing nothing at all.

“I don’t think about asteroids very often, but I would like to know what people who actually know about them are thinking about,” said one student, computer science major Nusrah Samad ’27.

The class is less lecture, more lively discussion, with Sunshine ricocheting around the room with fascinating facts and thought-provoking questions that students discuss, and answer, in small teams. On a Monday afternoon, they debated what would happen if the asteroid that took out a Siberian forest in 1908 hit Washington, D.C., today. (Answer: The District would burn to the ground, and the destruction would stretch to the Beltway.)

Project work and even some exams are also team-based. In one exercise, student teams hold a mock United Nations summit, taking on different scenarios and debating the merits of specific responses; another project challenges them to design and propose a defense strategy, such as an intercepting spacecraft.

“The idea is to get them thinking and talking about the material in an active way, so that they might actually understand and retain it,” said Sunshine. “But these exercises also help them practice distilling information and communicating it in a way that makes sense.”

While asteroids regularly whiz through Earth’s cosmic neighborhood, impacts are rare: Smaller ones roughly the size of a Honda CRV breach the atmosphere about once a year, according to NASA. But as the dinosaurs would tell you if they could, extinction-level events can happen. In 2016, NASA formed its Office of Planetary Defense, which coordinates with other agencies nationally and internationally. Sunshine, who directs UMD’s Small Bodies Group, has been involved in several planetary missions, including NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which in 2022 slammed into the asteroid moon Dimorphos, the first-ever full-scale test of asteroid deflection.

Beyond a healthy dose of science (and some high school math), “Collisions in Space” also builds skills in writing, presenting, teamwork, critical thinking and creativity through project work and “briefs” students must prepare as planetary experts for their “boss”—an unnamed U.S. senator.

“I really like this class,” said communications major Sam Cohen ’27, who initially signed up to knock out two gen-ed requirements. “It’s cool because there is a lot of communications skills woven into it, and I wasn’t expecting that.”

Sunshine said that by the end of the semester, students know more about asteroids and potential planetary impacts than about 99% of the world’s population, no matter how many asteroid flicks Hollywood churns out. (Four big-budget movies on deadly asteroids and comets have been released since the course was introduced in 2011; they get better each time, she said.) She hopes that, regardless of the student’s major or career trajectory, the course creates an appreciation for science.

“This is a real-life problem, but it's also an incredible context to increase people's scientific awareness and appreciation,” she said. “So much of the decisions that we make as a country and a world are based on science. You have to have some familiarity and appreciation that it’s not all black and white.”

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