How to deflect an asteroid

Gareth Collins of Imperial College London’s Department of Earth Science & Engineering explains how to defeat near-Earth objects. Sorry, Bruce Willis.
Find the threat “Near-Earth objects are pieces of rock or ice in the solar system whose orbit occasionally brings them close to Earth,” says Collins. Their small size and distance from Earth make them difficult to see, but telescope arrays have detected 85 per cent of objects more than 1km in diameter. “Thousands reach the Earth every year, but hazards are infrequent. The ten-kilotonne object over Chelyabinsk in February was a once-a-century event.”
Assess the risk The damage that an asteroid impact can cause depends on factors such as its size, speed, density and where it lands. Collins has developed a website (impact.ese.ic.ac.uk) to help estimate threats. “Asteroids about 1.5km in diameter are believed to be large enough to disperse debris worldwide,” he says. “The impact of an object the size of a city block would not cause global damage, but could have far-reaching consequences if it occurred in an ocean off a populous place.”
Deflect it Whether or not a deflection mission is possible depends on the asteroid’s size and how much warning there is. “With more than ten years’ warning, one of a number of strategies could be used to knock it off course,” Collins says. Colliding a spacecraft with the asteroid is the most practical and could be used on asteroids up to a few hundred meters across; adding a nuclear warhead would be better for objects up to 1km across. Or use a spacecraft as a “gravity tractor” to pull the object away from Earth.


Image credit: Tavis Coburn

How to deflect an asteroid

Gareth Collins of Imperial College London’s Department of Earth Science & Engineering explains how to defeat near-Earth objects. Sorry, Bruce Willis.

Find the threat
“Near-Earth objects are pieces of rock or ice in the solar system whose orbit occasionally brings them close to Earth,” says Collins. Their small size and distance from Earth make them difficult to see, but telescope arrays have detected 85 per cent of objects more than 1km in diameter. “Thousands reach the Earth every year, but hazards are infrequent. The ten-kilotonne object over Chelyabinsk in February was a once-a-century event.”

Assess the risk
The damage that an asteroid impact can cause depends on factors such as its size, speed, density and where it lands. Collins has developed a website (impact.ese.ic.ac.uk) to help estimate threats. “Asteroids about 1.5km in diameter are believed to be large enough to disperse debris worldwide,” he says. “The impact of an object the size of a city block would not cause global damage, but could have far-reaching consequences if it occurred in an ocean off a populous place.”

Deflect it
Whether or not a deflection mission is possible depends on the asteroid’s size and how much warning there is. “With more than ten years’ warning, one of a number of strategies could be used to knock it off course,” Collins says. Colliding a spacecraft with the asteroid is the most practical and could be used on asteroids up to a few hundred meters across; adding a nuclear warhead would be better for objects up to 1km across. Or use a spacecraft as a “gravity tractor” to pull the object away from Earth.

Image credit: Tavis Coburn


Posted 6 months ago with 250 notes
Tagged:Astronomyspaceasteroidearthnear earth objectsspacecraftscience

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