Researchers have bad news for asteroid-smashing Earth defense plans

Brittany A. Roston - Mar 4, 2019, 6:17pm CST
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Researchers have bad news for asteroid-smashing Earth defense plans

Various concepts for dealing with asteroids on a path toward Earth have been proposed, and among them is the idea of asteroid-smashing. Under such an arrangement, the idea goes, humanity could smash something fairly large into an asteroid to deflect it or, even better, totally destroy it. That may not be the option some though it was, though, at least based on a study out of Johns Hopkins University.

READ: 2022 NASA DART mission will slam spacecraft into an asteroid

Space agencies around the globe are home to asteroid-monitoring efforts, which involves finding, naming, and tracking asteroids that are reasonably close to our planet. The near-Earth objects could cause substantial — even catastrophic — harm if one were to strike our planet, though there’s no indication that we’re at such risk at this point in time.

Different methods for dealing with future, potentially dangerous, asteroids have been presented, including the idea of using a nuclear device to deflect one, smashing a spacecraft into an asteroid to change its path, and even using a weapon to destroy one.

That latter concept may not be viable, at least according to a new study that found large asteroids may be much harder to destroy than previously thought. The study, which will be published in Icarus later this month, found that larger asteroids are likely stronger than anticipated and will take more energy to destroy.

The work involved a new computer model called the Tonge-Ramesh model, which found that an impact on an asteroid has two phases: the initial phase, which causes significant damage right after impact, and the second phase, which results in the gravitational reaccumulation of small pieces sent flying from the asteroid by the impact.

The full asteroid isn’t destroyed by the phase one impact, according to the new computer model, instead leaving a large damaged core that caused a strong gravitational pull impacting the broken fragments. Though it was cracked, “the impacted asteroid retained significant strength,” according to the researchers, indicating that more energy would be necessary to actually destroy the space rock.

The report comes a year ahead of a planned NASA mission that will involve slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid in order to study the deflection potential.


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