Every two years, NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies runs a simulation to see how its scientists could save the planet from an incoming asteroid. This year’s study was not very comforting– the simulated asteroid appeared incredibly close to Earth, leaving astronomers with no choice but to prepare for the impact. It’s a shame, because new search shows that nearby asteroids can be nuclear harmless.
In an ideal situation, scientists would identify an entering asteroid years before it reached Earth. This would give ample time for what NASA calls a “deflection” strategy, where rockets or other spacecraft alter the path of an asteroid to prevent it from hitting our planet.
NASA actually plans to test deflection strategies during its DART mission, which begins on November 24. Basically, we’re going to fire a rocket at a harmless asteroid to see if we can get it to deviate from its course. But here’s the problem: We may not have years to prepare for an asteroid impact. If we identify an incoming asteroid when it is only a few months from Earth, it may not be possible to change its course.
But researchers at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University have found that the opposite may be true. The team programmed simulations of a 328-foot-long asteroid at various distances from Earth. And even a month away from impact, we could safely atomize the suction cup with a megaton bomb.
Most of the debris from the simulated asteroid fell into the Sun’s orbit, leaving only 1% or less to come to Earth. The results for the larger asteroids are less impressive, although simulations suggest that we could avoid 99% of the debris from a very large asteroid if we detonate it six months before it reaches Earth.
Ultimately, researchers now believe disruption is an effective last-minute strategy to combat incoming asteroids. But we still need more data to verify these results. Reality does not always match what we see in simulations, and there may be unknown variables in these equations.