Avoiding Armageddon: Scientists experiment with ways to destroy or redirect threats from space
04/17/2018 // David Williams // Views

As you read this, there are many different kinds of things that are hurtling through space at alarming speeds. Never mind the stars and the planets, space is filled with many asteroids that could potentially lead to disastrous consequences if they ever reach all the way down towards Earth. It is said that this is the exact reason for the demise of dinosaurs, and it's not impossible for humans to suffer the same fate.

That's why researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have been working as part of a national planetary defense team, and it is now reported that so far, they have managed to design a conceptual spacecraft that's meant to deflect any and all Earth-bound asteroids. After finishing the work on their initial design, they evaluated it to understand how it could work against a massive asteroid. The results of the research, details and all, were recently shared in a paper that was published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

The researchers have reportedly come up with a spacecraft that measures nine meters tall and weighs a total of 8.8 tons. They've called it the HAMMER vehicle, where HAMMER stands for Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response. It features a modular-design that would essentially allow it to be used as either a kinetic impactor – kind of like a battering ram – or a dedicated transport vehicle for a specialized nuclear device.

One of the possible missions for the HAMMER vehicle has already been identified. 101955 Bennu is a massive asteroid that measures around 500 meters in diameters – bigger than the size of five football fields – and weighs around 79 billion kilograms – more than 1,600 times heavier than the Titanic. It's currently circling the sun at around 63,000 miles per hour, and based on observable data, it is said that it has a one in 2,700 chance of eventually hitting the planet Earth. Scientists have already looked into it and even put marked their calendars for it: September 25, 2135. The estimate kinetic energy of this future impact has been reported to be equivalent to 1,200 megatons. (Related: Humanity is one asteroid impact away from being wiped out.)


As you can imagine, such an incident cannot be allowed to happen. According to Kirsten Howley, a physicist an a co-author on the study, such as disastrous event for pretty much everything on Earth may not sound likely, but it's highly probable. "The chance of an impact appears slim now, but the consequences would be dire," she said. "This study aims to help us shorted the response timeline when we do see a clear and present danger so we can have more options to deflect it. The ultimate goal is to be ready to protect life on Earth."

This is where HAMMER would come in, ideally. As a kinetic impactor, it can be used to deliver a "gentle nudge" that would help to slow asteroids down or better yet, change their course and save the Earth from their impact. The idea is to simply guide them safely away from Earth by all means necessary, and avoid breaking them apart because that might cause even more problems as the number of pieces that could impact Earth would only increase.

"The push you need to give it is very small if you deflect the asteroid 50 years out," said Howley. "But that far out, you're likely to think the percentage of being hit would be one percent. The probably of a Bennu impact may be one in 2,700 today, but that will almost certainly change – for better or worse – as we gather more data about its orbit."

Howley also warned that delay is the greatest enemy of any asteroid deflection mission. And for that reason, it's urgent to get a working deflection platform available as soon as possible. With more work, HAMMER could serve as that solution for now.

Read more about future space problems and their solutions in Space.news.

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