Eventually, our lovely little blue and green planet is going to get smacked by another wayward asteroid. Whether it will happen within any of our lifetimes — and whether humanity as a species will survive it — remains to be seen, but it has happened before, and it will most certainly happen again. With thousands of Near Earth Objects that we know about (to say nothing of the ones we don’t), the prospect of a collision seems both inevitable and unavoidable, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to conjure up ways to defend the Earth from such an event, or at the very least to mitigate the damages. According to Universe Today, one such project, an international collaboration dubbed NEOShield, will investigate ways of making a preemptive strike against any oncoming chunks of rocky doom. The program is the brainchild of Alan Harris, an asteroid researcher at the German Aerospace Center.
There are two basic approaches that have been suggested for dealing with an oncoming asteroid, both of which require us to know the object is headed for us and have time and a means ready to deal with it. The first possibility is one popularized by Hollywood movies such as Armageddon: blowing the sucker up. Unfortunately, those movies never touch on the fact that breaking an asteroid up into a barrage of debris rather than one solid chunk could actually make things much worse. Despite making for an exciting movie scenario, this approach should only be used as a last resort.
A much preferable solution would be to divert the asteroid before it gets too close. This would require us to have a spacecraft that could intercept the asteroid at the exact right time, at the exact right place, at the exact right angle. Once there, you could smack the ship into the asteroid, hopefully diverting the asteroid’s course enough to miss our planet. Alternatively, if the NEO was far enough away, you could actually use the ship’s gravitational pull to tug the body off course. That, of course, is even more of a long shot than the “crash into it” plan, and Harris says the idea “only exists on paper” at this point.
Whether any of these ideas could actually save our bacon in the event of an oncoming NEO remains to be seen, but the European Union will be spending 4 million Euros over the next three years to find out.
Image courtesy Don Davis.