Meteor strikes make for effective nightmare fuel, a fact that’s reflected in the sheer volume of Hollywood movies dedicated to the topic. When writer-director Adam McKay got to work on Netflix’s Don’t Look Up, he wanted to be sure it was in keeping with the science, so he reached out to Dr Amy Mainzer.
As one of the world's leading scientists in asteroid detection and planetary defense, a Professor of Planetary Science, and principal investigator of NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission, Mainzer was an obvious choice for discussing all things end of the world. We caught up with her to find out more about her path into this exciting field, and how one goes from space missions to consulting on cinema.
What do you do?
I am a Professor of Planetary Science at the University of Arizona, and lead of the NASA Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) and Near-Earth Object Surveyor missions.
What did it take to get here?
I have a BS in physics and a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics. As I worked my way through graduate school, I was lucky enough to get to work on NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, building a camera that helped steer the observatory.
After I graduated with my PhD, I started working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2003 as a scientist, serving as the Deputy Project Scientist on NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, which launched in late 2009. I worked for a really excellent scientist who was the lead of the project, Professor Edward Wright at UCLA.
The WISE mission’s primary science objective was to make a map of the entire sky in infrared wavelengths, and as it turned out, it happened to be very good at detecting and characterizing asteroids and comets.
After WISE finished its primary mission, it was placed into a hibernation state orbiting the Earth, and we thought that was the end of the project. But we were able to reactivate it, and in 2013, we turned the telescope back on to continue to characterize near-Earth asteroids and comets. It was renamed NEOWISE, for Near-Earth Object WISE, and I took over from Prof. Wright as the principal investigator.
In 2019 I left JPL to become a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona. I’m currently doing research on asteroids and comets but have also begun work on remote sensing of Western US forests to inform biodiversity restoration efforts. The idea is to help land managers figure out how to make the best use of their resources for restoring native ecosystems.
We have also been working to build a satellite for NEOWISE that will do a very comprehensive survey of the asteroids and comets out there that are large enough to cause severe regional damage. The new mission, called the Near-Earth Object Surveyor, will be able to significantly improve our capability to find and characterize near-Earth asteroids and comets.
What’s one of the proudest moments from your career so far?
Seeing students graduate and go on to become independent colleagues is the best thing. You can do some good things on your own as an individual scientist, but if you can be a mentor to others, you can move mountains. The brilliance and bravery of early career folks is inspiring and gives me hope.
Any hairy moments on the job?
Working on space missions is always a challenge. Space is a harsh environment, and the instincts that we’ve developed from living on Earth often don’t help us much for working in it. To be sure the parts we build will survive the space environment, we subject them to extreme testing, including shaking them really hard to simulate the vibrations of the rocket as it launches.
Once, when working on the camera for the Spitzer Space Telescope, a part of the camera I was building broke during a vibration test. That was definitely a hair-raising moment and few months, when we had to redesign a plate made of an exotic element called molybdenum. The original design had a sharp corner cut into it, and it cracked under stress. But the redesigned, heftier version survived the next vibration test without a hitch, and the camera worked on-orbit every day throughout Spitzer’s 17-year mission. However, that incident taught me early on that you have to be really grateful for any experiment that works: it’s a tough business.
How did you come to be involved with Don’t Look Up?
The writer-director Adam McKay contacted me more than two years ago when he had a first draft of the script. At our first conversation, it became immediately clear that we had common goals. In that initial conversation, we talked about making a statement about the importance of science, the scourge of science denial, and the need to make science-based decisions when dealing with global challenges like climate change, loss of biodiversity, and even asteroids and comets.
The pandemic hadn’t happened yet, so when it hit a few months after our first conversations, I asked Adam, “Did you have a crystal ball?”
As the pandemic unfolded, it became clear that science denial would exact a terrible toll on everyone. I hope the movie creates a conversation about the fundamental need for science literacy and science-based governance.
Also, I’m a big fan of Adam’s previous work, so it was a no-brainer to work on this movie with him and the team.
You can find out more about the challenges and satisfaction of consulting as a scientist on a Hollywood movie here.