Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a system that can be used to protect Earth against killer asteroids. The system is based on a “preventative strike,” as the scientists say that deflection at the final moments will not work. Gregory Brown, Astronomer at Royal Observatory, Greenwich, has even told Newsweek that asteroid deflection is “somehow behind.” He continues, “Determining the most effective route for asteroid deflection under different circumstances is one step on the road to preparing our defenses.”
The scientists from MIT have determined that a kinetic impactor is the only viable method of protecting Earth from a large asteroid in the future. Though there are other methods such as the usage of nuclear weapons for deflections, the political issues and difficulty in implementation make it an impractical method. A kinetic impactor is a projectile that would slam into the asteroid, deflecting it from its path.
The MIT decision map
The scientists at MIT have come up with a decision map that can help identify the best course of action based on multiple factors. The map considers things like an asteroid’s mass, momentum, trajectory, warning time, and distance to a gravitational keyhole. The proximity to a gravitational keyhole is perhaps the most important factor, as asteroids that pass one have a very high chance of striking Earth. Sung Wook Paek, lead author, told MIT News that the goal is to close the gravitational keyhole. With this map, early-detection deflection methods can easily be selected to prevent last-minute action.
The team tested a few simulations using their decision map. The simulations considered using a kinetic impactor for one, sending a scout to measure the asteroid for another, and a third with two scouts – one to nudge the asteroid before a kinetic impactor is used. The map takes into consideration numerous factors before suggesting the best course of action. All of this will be well in advance, and not last-minute action.
Paek also told MIT News, “People have mostly considered strategies of last-minute deflection, when the asteroid has already passed through a keyhole and is heading toward a collision with Earth. I’m interested in preventing keyhole passage well before Earth impact.” He also hinted at how many different courses of action could be present for a scenario, and how the decision map will help in suggesting the best action.
“Instead of changing the size of a projectile, we may be able to change the number of launches and send up multiple smaller spacecraft to collide with an asteroid, one by one. Or we could launch projectiles from the moon or use defunct satellites as kinetic impactors.” The research was partially funded by NASA, Draper Laboratory, and the Samsung Foundation of Culture. The research paper was published in Acta Astronautica.
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