Some scientists propose using a powerful laser beam to evaporate the top layer off an asteroid and generate enough photonic thrust that the asteroid veers off course. Recently, a team used an advanced hydrodynamical simulation model called Spheral and concluded that a nuclear warhead could be an effective strategy for avoiding a late-course asteroid impact.
Related: NASA Is Going To Chase An Asteroid Using A Solar Sail
Philip Lubin, a researcher and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has presented a rather Hollywood-esque approach for avoiding an asteroid apocalypse called Pi. The method is rather cinematic, and the research paper titled “Don’t Forget to Look Up” that details the whole strategy is also a riff on the asteroid-apocalypse Netflix film called Don’t Look Up. Lubin’s project, which is currently a Phase One awardee in the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, aims to use a system of nuclear-ready penetrating rods that will pierce an asteroid and then blow it to smithereens. The paper describes a savior system that will be effective against an asteroid (traveling at 20 kilometers per second) as well as a comet (moving at 40 kilometers per second) with a similar destructive potential as the one that wiped out dinosaurs from the face of the Earth.
Avoiding The Same Fate As Dinosaurs
Professor Lubin’s proposal is a hypothetical model touted as a viable apocalypse aversion tactic against an asteroid that falls in the multi-hundred-meter diameter class. In this case, the test subject was an asteroid about 10 kilometers in diameter, roughly the same dimension as its dinosaur-killing sibling millions of years ago. The system would theoretically work within a six-month impact window, of which five months are used for the journey to meet the asteroid. After that, scientists will use the remaining one month for post-explosion diversion of the asteroid fragments.
The explosion system is armed with an array of hypervelocity penetrators modified with small nuclear explosive devices (NED). The goal is to shatter the killer asteroid into fragments by following an onion-peel system to destroy it using penetrators layer after layer, starting outside and then progressively moving inwards. First, however, the payload will have to deliver by a heavy-lift launch vehicle such as NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS) for the planned Artemis missions and the Starship currently in development at SpaceX. Once the thermonuclear explosives have done their job, the smaller asteroid fragments will either fly past the Earth or burn on their entry into Earth’s atmosphere due to their small size. For pieces that are up to 15-meter in size, the Earth’s atmosphere acts as a shield for planetary defense by destroying the mid-way.