In between making game-changing discoveries on Mars and planning for interplanetary space travel, NASA also has to focus on the small things, like defending Earth from massive hurtling chunks of space rock. The whole "deadly asteroid" scenario is a trope in apocalypse and superhero movies, but an asteroid colliding with Earth is actually a very real possibility, and NASA wants to be prepared. So far their plan consists of this: If an asteroid approaches the planet on a collision course, ram something enormous into it.
The Daily Beast reports that NASA's Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment will be a two-stage collaboration with the European Space Agency should the planet become endangered. The ESA will launch a satellite to gather data on the asteroid, and then NASA will launch an enormous battering ram to hit the asteroid and hopefully nudge it off course. Even nudging it one inch per second would make all the difference, said Near-Earth Objects Program executive Lindley Johnson.
If you were 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.
The size of the asteroid in question will dictate the size of the spacecraft NASA will launch to intercept it. Of course, if the asteroid is too big to be thrown off by NASA's equipment, that could be a problem. Luckily there are options: "Use of a nuclear device to deflect an asteroid is not preposterous, but it wouldn’t be used in the way depicted in the movies," Johnson said. "The most effective way we think to use a nuclear device is to detonate it at a standoff distance from the asteroid’s surface. The irradiation will cause a layer of that surface to heat up and blow-off, which in turn imparts a shove of force on the rest of the asteroid in the opposite direction."
In other words, shave off part of an asteroid with a nuclear weapon, and it might just change its course. NASA is brainstorming still more methods to blow up asteroids as part of their Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), but if none of those work, it might be time to call in President Morgan Freeman.
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