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Avoiding Armageddon With Dr. Carrie Nugent

Dr. Carrie Nugent is an asteroid hunter at the California Institute of Technology’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center. She even has an asteroid named after her: Asteroid 8801 Nugent. On Nerdette, she talks with Greta Johnsen about what it’s like to track elusive celestial bodies and why she doesn’t like talking about what it’s like being a female scientist.

Greta Johnsen: Many of us have seen Armageddon, and we may or may not have even been the perfect ripe age of 15 and wept a lot at the movie theater when we saw it. But I figure we should start with the basics and work with a non-Hollywood definition of an asteroid. What actually is an asteroid?

Carrie Nugent: Asteroids are basically rocks or chunks of metal that are out in space. They’re really interesting to study because they’re some of the oldest material in the solar system. They formed before the planets did, so when you study asteroids, you’re looking back in time and seeing what the very ancient solar system is like. 

Johnsen: As an asteroid hunter, what are you doing during any given day? 

Nugent: There are a lot of asteroid hunters all across the nation, and most of them do spend some time at night at telescopes. But my job is a little different. I use a telescope out in space called NEOWISE. Because of that, I work days in a cubicle on my laptop. And with a great group of colleagues, we look for asteroids and report them to the Minor Planet Center, which keeps track of all of them.

Johnsen: How much fun is it to tell people what you do at dinner parties? What kind of reactions do you get? 

Nugent: It’s super fun. I always get asked about Bruce Willis, which I love. I really owe Mr. Willis a debt of gratitude for bringing attention to the work that I do.

It’s an obscure job, but everybody knows about it because of Deep Impact and Armageddon, and so I'm really grateful to those two movies for raising awareness about this work.

Johnsen: Let’s say that you find an asteroid that could be heading towards Earth. You said that we have the technology to be able to modify the trajectory -- how do we actually do that?

Nugent: That’s a great question. The key thing is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and you’d have to really tailor your response to the particular asteroid. That’s one of the reasons why we look for them now, so we could plan exactly what to do in that particular situation. But there are lots of options on the table.

I was lucky enough to talk to NASA’s planetary defense officer, which is a real job title. His name is Lindley Johnson, and he said that there are three main strategies on the table. 

One is a gravity tractor. You put something in orbit around the asteroid and slowly tug it off its path. And that’s nice because it’s really controllable, it’s slow, and you can really see how the asteroid is moving over time.

Another option is the kinetic impactor. You give it a hard shove, hit it with something heavy, and shove it to the side. 

And the last option is the nuclear option, which is a kind of a last resort because there are a lot of unknowns with that. It makes for a great movie, but when it comes down to the science, there are a lot of things we couldn’t predict precisely with that. But it’s a lot of energy, and you’d want to detonate it next to the asteroid, again, to give it a hard shove out of the way.

Another key thing to realize is that you don’t necessarily have to move the asteroid a big distance -- you just have to change its speed a little bit. Because impact with the Earth is a timing issue. If you slow down the asteroid just a little bit, or speed it up just a little bit, it’ll miss Earth entirely. 

Johnsen: In your press materials, you are very clear about not wanting to talk about the fact that you are a woman in science. That’s something we also try to avoid. The question about what it’s like to be a woman in any field at all is very superficial and not very insightful, I think. But I never really encountered anyone who has been so clear, concise, opinionated, and proactive in saying, “Listen, this isn’t a conversation I’m interested in having.” At the risk of having that conversation, I would like to ask you why you take that stand.

Nugent: I’m actually really happy to talk about why I take that stand. I don’t know if that’s ironic or not.

This is definitely my own personal opinion, but certainly astronomy is overwhelmingly white and male, and the first step to addressing that is to talk about it. And I think a lot of times, when you’re a scientist and you’re a woman, you get asked questions about your gender, because people are genuinely trying to be helpful and raise awareness.

But my personal feeling is that sometimes that can be deeply counterproductive, because then those are questions that “ordinary scientists” -- male scientists -- aren’t getting, and it makes women scientists seem like some sort of other, some sort of substandard scientist. And that’s what bothers me.

If I’m talking about my science to people, I just want to talk about that science. I don’t necessarily want to talk about anything but that, because that’s what I do. I’m a scientist. I want to talk about science.

And I have to also say it’s partly a selfish reason, because I think those questions are incredibly awkward. I mean, if someone came up to you, Greta, and was like, “What’s it like being a female reporter? What special challenges do you face?” Or any profession. “What is it like being a female accountant?” What do you say to that? 

It’s just an awkward question. Being a female scientist is like being a male scientist except sometimes you get awkward questions from reporters.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation. 

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