October 22, 2021

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Nuking An Asteroid To Prevent It From Colliding With Earth Could Actually Work, Claims Study

If an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth on a Collison course at hundreds of thousands of kilometers an hour, we might be able to deflect it from hitting the earth, according to new research.

In a paper published in the journal Acta Astronautica, researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have revealed that a “standoff nuclear explosion or a kinetic impactor” could successfully deflect an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth.

The nuclear device would essentially nudge the asteroid away from its destructive path, with a minor change in speed, and without blasting it into hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces.

However, if the asteroid goes unnoticed until it is too late to achieve a deflection, the researchers have also proposed a backup plan – a nuclear device with enough energy to break up the asteroid into tiny, but well-dispersed fragments.

“If we spotted a hazardous object destined to strike the Earth too late to safely divert it, our best remaining option would be to break it up so thoroughly the resulting fragments would largely miss the Earth,” said Michael Owen, one of the researchers who worked on the paper. “This is a complicated orbital question though — if you break up an asteroid into pieces, the resulting cloud of fragments will each pursue their own path around the sun, interacting with each other and the planets gravitationally.

They have also closely analyzed the different velocity distributions of the fragments broken up from an asteroid roughly the shape of Bennu and is around 100 meters in diameter. Using hydrodynamic calculations and initial conditions, they calculated the results from a one-megaton-yield nuclear device, deployed a few meters off the surface of the asteroid.

“One of the challenges in assessing disruption is that you need to model all of the fragment orbits, which is generally far more complicated than modeling a simple deflection,” said Patrick King, lead author of the paper, and a former Graduate Scholar Program fellow at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Nevertheless, we need to try to tackle these challenges if we want to assess disruption as a possible strategy.”

The researchers say preparations of any possible scenarios are necessary as a lot of near-Earth asteroids are yet to be discovered.

Cover Image: Shutterstock

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