A group of researchers wants to save Earth from a possible asteroid apocalypse using a new planetary defense method they call PI, short for “Pulverize It.”
The plan, detailed in a lengthy whitepaper on the website of the Experimental Cosmology Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and submitted to the journal Advances in Space Research, aims to break large, potentially deadly asteroids into hundreds of small ones. pieces by launching a series of “penetrator rods” in the path of the asteroid.
These rods, each between 6 and 10 feet long (1.8 to 3 meters), could contain explosives, potentially even nuclear, to blow up an approaching asteroid into relatively harmless pieces long before it reaches the atmosphere of Earth, the researchers wrote.
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The resulting rain of debris could still cause damage to structures and humans below, the authors said. But this damage would be negligible compared to the impact of a large asteroid, such as the 62-foot-wide (19 m) meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013, with roughly the force of 30 Hiroshima bombs. (The resulting shock waves could have killed millions of people if the meteor had exploded directly over a major city, but the explosion occurred over a wide area on the outskirts of the city of Chelyabinsk, causing damage and injuries, but no deaths).
To use a cartoon analogy, the difference between a large asteroid and hundreds of small ones is similar to “a 500 kilogram asteroid [1,100-pound] the grand piano falls on your head from a height of a kilometer … [or] 500 kilograms of foam balls fell on you from the same height, “wrote study authors Philip Lubin and Alexander Cohen, both UCSB physicists, in a recent editorial for Scientific American.
(Image credit: Alexander Cohen)
The looming threat
NASA tracks the movements of more than 8,000 near-Earth asteroids with diameters greater than 140 m (460 ft). However, as the Chelyabinsk incident showed, smaller objects can still have a big impact.
Part of the reason the Chelyabinsk meteor was so destructive is that astronomers didn’t see it coming; The rock was significantly smaller than the asteroids that space agencies typically track, and it shot at Earth directly from the direction of the sun, according to NASA.
One advantage of the PI plan is that, theoretically, a rocket filled with penetrator rods could be launched on very short notice, the researchers said, even a few minutes before an object reaches Earth’s atmosphere.
“A 20-meter-wide space rock-sized impactor that broke over Chelyabinsk, Russia … could be intercepted just 100 seconds before impact” using a launcher similar to that used for ICBMs, the researchers wrote in Scientist. American.
Meanwhile, a rock the size of the 1,200-foot-wide (370 m) asteroid Apophis could “be treated 10 days before hitting Earth,” the team said. Existing rocket technology, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle, could easily deploy the explosive rods in the region around such an asteroid.
If those estimates are accurate, then the PI method would be a considerably more flexible planetary defense plan than NASA’s current mission to alter the course of a near-Earth asteroid by crashing a rocket into it. That mission, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), will launch in November, but it will be almost a year before the test rocket reaches its target: the 160-meter-wide moon of the asteroid Didymos. If successful, the rocket’s impact will slow the moon’s orbit long enough for astronomers to determine whether asteroid redirection is even effective.
But PI would also require extensive testing to prove its feasibility, starting with ground tests on fake asteroids and then moving on to real targets in space. At the moment, no such tests have been planned.
The success of the method also depends on the ability of scientists to detect small near-Earth asteroids, such as the Chelyabinsk impactor, before they enter the atmosphere. This is also a work in progress.
“Without a proper ‘early warning system’, PI and any other planetary defense method would offer suboptimal protection,” the authors concluded in their Scientific American article. “PI is just one piece of this urgent puzzle: to adequately protect the Earth, we must fully open our eyes to the heavens.”
Originally posted on Live Science.
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