NASA has a plan to save Earth from an asteroid, and Hollywood probably won’t like it
The odds of an asteroid hitting the Earth aren’t all that high – at least not as high as Hollywood would have you believe – but if one hits, we are all screwed. In fact, saying we’re screwed doesn’t really do it justice. If a big enough asteroid hits, the Earth gets a complete reset and the only remnants of humanity will be our space junk.
Regardless of how slim the chances of an extinction level event coming via an asteroid are, it’s something that it would be nice to have a plan to stop. It’s not the kind of thing we want to just wing it on.
In order to get an idea of what we would need to do in order to destroy or deflect an oncoming object, NASA wants to crash a spacecraft into a perfectly good asteroid in order to see how much force would be required to render it harmless – or at least less humanity-destroying.
According to The Daily Beast, the plan is known the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA), and it is a joint effort from NASA and the European Space Agency. The first step will come from the ESA, as it plans to launch a satellite into orbit around an asteroid. NASA will then take over and smash it into the asteroid’s surface.
Sadly for us on Earth, the spacecraft won’t be filled with nuclear weapons or anything like that. It won’t be spectacular to watch from Earth, although scientists will probably get a kick out of it. The goal will be to measure the impact and crunch the numbers in order to get a sense of what would be needed if the real thing is heading our way.
Although it would be neat to see the asteroid explode like the Death Star in Episode IV, in reality the best way to avoid an asteroid hitting Earth isn’t to destroy it, but rather to nudge it out of the path of the planet. If humans can strike the asteroid with enough force, and hit it early enough, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to change its trajectory.
“[I]f you were [to] add or subtract just an inch per second of velocity to the asteroid, that will over time change the position of the asteroid in its orbit enough that in a couple of years the asteroid will miss the Earth rather than hit,” NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Program executive Lindley Johnson said.
The way it would work is to detonate a nuclear device a preset distance from the surface of the asteroid. The top layer of the asteroid would then become irradiated and burn off, which would provide the thrust to nudge the asteroid.
It’s not quite as dramatic as a group of unlikely astronauts being shot to the asteroid, where they heroically land, drill into the asteroid, then crack a few jokes before one of them sacrifices themselves to detonate the nuke, while the another honors him by hitting on the departed’s daughter.
In fact, if you tried to blow up an asteroid with a nuke from the inside, assuming the bomb was actually strong enough to hurt a solid ball of rock, the results would probably be disastrous. Instead of one major asteroid hitting, thousands of smaller pieces would bombard the planet. Humanity might not be completely wiped out, but it would be a very, very bad day.
Instead, the heroic moments would take place through the use of math, much to the consternation of high school bullies everywhere. The asteroid would be spotted years out, and then the calculations would begin.
Given that the fate of the entire world would be at stake, hopefully all the governments of the world could get it together and fund the world saving project. With unlimited funds, a spacecraft could either be built or commandeered and sent to the asteroid a year or more out. The explosion would then knock the rock off orbit, and the world would be saved. Most people would probably even take it for granted.
Another, less cool option would be to send an especially heavy spacecraft towards an asteroid. If the asteroid’s density were small enough, a spacecraft could – in theory – pull the asteroid towards it just enough to affect its trajectory.
It’s a theory that will be tested, but it would probably be easier to send a nuclear bomb up than repeatedly launching mass into orbit for the spacecraft to grab onto. And then there’s the fuel the spacecraft would be needed to push that mass near the asteroid.
If all goes well, the test will take place at some point in 2016.