In the past, many astronomers urged early detection as the best way to avert death by asteroid in what could be a very real doomsday scenario. Problem: asteroids have a habit of sneaking p on us with only a few weeks’ warning, sometimes even only hours’ notice. Now, a new study out of Iowa State University (ISU) is urging quicker, decidedly more radical action: nuke the asteroids.
Bong Wie, direction of ISU’s Asteroid Deflection Research Center (did your college have one?) recently presented plan for averting death by asteroid at the International Space Development Conference, a gathering that attracted hundreds from the space industry around the world.
According to Wie, the craft would consist of two parts. First, a kinetic energy impactor would blast a deep crater in the asteroid. The second part, equipped with the nuclear warhead,would then fly into the crater and detonate, thus increasing the chance of fragmenting the asteroid. According to Wie, 99% off the fragments would then miss Earth, with most of those headed to our planet ultimately burning up in the atmosphere.
A key selling point of Wie’s plan: short notice readiness. According to Wie, the technology has already been proven by NASA’s Deep Impact mission, which launched an impactor into a comet. Implication: no research and development time. The goal: have two spacecraft, a primary and a backup sister ship, available for launch within a year. Additionally, if the craft were built ad put on stand-by, a scramble in a couple of days might be possible. In contrast, other proposed plans would require 10-20 years advance notice.
As of now, there are millions of asteroidsfloating around the solar system, mostly in theMain Asteroid Belt, which is safely between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Of the millions of asteroids 7,000 are classified as near-Earth. Of the near-Earth objects, over1,000 are considered as “potentially hazardous,” which is defined as an object over 500 feet in diameter that can come within 4.6 million miles of Earth.
Obviously, a metallic space rock 500 feet across traveling at up to 15 miles per second could do an immense amount of damage. For comparison, the object (most likely a comet) that caused the Tunguska Inciden twas probably less than 100 yards (300 feet across) but still leveled forests for over 1,000 square miles.
Needless to say, if such an object (even a small one) were to hit a populated area, the death toll would be apocalyptic. Large impactor? Worldwide devastation and possibly an end to civilization as we know it.
Unfortunately, there snags in Wie’s plan: money and politics. Currently, cost estimates for such a mission are about $1 billion ( a small price to save life as we know it) and Wie has only lined up about half of the funding. Additionally, international treaties regarding the deployment of weapons in space could pose a political snag, too.
In the end, it will be interesting to see if the required funding appears and/or the political roadblocks and be knocked down by a subject that is nothing short of an end to all life on Earth.
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