Best way to stop a killer asteroid? Form a committee

October 30, 2013 by Alan Duffy, The Conversation
It sounds like sci-fi, but Earth could be in an asteroid’s path. Now the UN is doing something about it. Credit: Russ Seidel

The United Nations (UN) has adopted several recommendations of a new asteroid defence plan, the first steps in preventing Earth from being struck by an asteroid.

The were a response to an earlier this year in Chelyabinsk, Russia. This object injured thousands and was around 17 metres across.

Something ten times bigger exploded over a remote Siberian region called Tanguska in 1908. This flattened thousands of square kilometres of forest like matchsticks, with a force hundreds of times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

We have only found 1% of these "killer" asteroids, meaning there are hundreds of times more out there than we know of. One of them, sooner or later, will have our name written on it.

A little disappointingly for fans of Bruce Willis' Armageddon, the UN's first steps included setting up committees. These will share information about any incoming asteroids (the International Asteroid Warning Group) and decide who will coordinate Earth's response (the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space).

It may not sound like much, but this is in fact a big deal. One of the longstanding issues in dealing with an incoming asteroid was the legal implications of what happens if it goes wrong.

Simply put, if NASA realised the asteroid would hit the USA, and managed to only change the asteroid's direction to avoid the States but hit China, this could be seen as an act of war (or the mother of all lawsuits at the very least).

For a global threat we need a global response, as well as a global share of the blame if it goes wrong.

The hard bit is over?

Now it's clear(-er) who is to deal with any incoming asteroids. That leaves the "simple" matter of finding the asteroids and deflecting them.

Asteroids are small, about the size of a football field (of any footy code), which is tiny by astronomy standards. This isn't a search for a needle in a haystack. It's a search for that needle somewhere in all the hay on Earth.

To make matters worse the needles aren't nice and shiny; they're dull and barely visible. The only time asteroids are seen by our telescopes is when they reflect sunlight. That means we are completely blind to them if they are coming from the direction of the Sun (although a privately-funded space telescope called Sentinel will lie within Earth's orbit so all asteroids heading towards the Earth would be lit up by the Sun).

It’s hard to spot an asteroid… Credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Cente

In practice, we find asteroids by taking pictures of the night sky a few days apart; we then play a cosmic game of "spot the difference". If anything has moved relative to the background stars it must be close to us.

We can then watch the asteroid's movement over time, getting an ever-clearer idea of its trajectory (or its path through the Solar System) and whether the Earth may pass through it sometime in the future.

We can't ever perfectly know the trajectory, but we can give a chance of this collision occurring. The UN committee will decide how bad the odds have to get before Earth has to do something about it.

Incoming asteroid, call Bruce Willis?

Once we find an asteroid our options in dealing with it will change depending on how much warning we have.

If we found it early, and have decades to deal with the threat, then it'll be much easier than if we have only a year (although if it's too big then we may have no choice but to bunker down and wait out a year for the Deep Impact-style hit).

Although Hollywood would have you believe otherwise, we don't want to stop the asteroid (it's moving too fast and is too massive to even bother trying). We definitely don't want to blow it up (that would turn a bullet into a shotgun blast that still mostly travels in the same trajectory).

This is the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid.

Instead we want to gently nudge the asteroid so that it just misses Earth. The earlier we catch it, the more gentle we can be.

To nudge an asteroid we have two options. The first is to fly a spacecraft beside the asteroid and either throw a bag (or rope) around it and tow it with spacecraft's rockets. Unfortunately the asteroid may be more a pile of rubble than solid rock and could break apart.

This is why a second option might be better - a gravity tractor.

Just as the Earth pulls you towards the ground thanks to gravity, you in turn are pulling the Earth towards you. But because you're much smaller this has no noticeable effect.

If we fly our spacecraft beside a larger asteroid, it will fall towards the surface of the asteroid, but the asteroid will have fallen towards the spacecraft by a tiny amount too.

This means that if we then use the spacecraft rockets to back away we can let them fall together again. Do this for long enough and even a giant asteroid will be "towed" by the gravity of our little spacecraft.

To protect humanity from the fate of the dinosaurs, we will need new telescopes to search the skies, and spacecraft technology to perfect the deflection of the once found. But, to misquote a famous astronaut, even though the UN committee may be one small step for man, it is a giant leap for mankind.

Explore further: Asteroid expert says surveillance is key to survival, planning is key to defense

Related Stories

Big asteroid swinging by Earth has its own moon

May 30, 2013

Astronomers getting their first close-up glimpse of a giant asteroid about to whiz by Earth found a surprise bonus rock. A smaller moon asteroid is circling the larger space rock, an unusual but not unheard of space phenomenon.

Asteroid threat has Congress' attention

April 15, 2013

As if you don't have enough to worry about, consider the subject of a hearing last week on Capitol Hill: asteroids that may be headed toward Earth. The good news: NASA is tracking most of the largest asteroids - the kind ...

Massive asteroid with moon to pass Earth today

May 31, 2013

An asteroid nearly two miles (three kilometers) wide is set to pass by Earth Friday with no risk of impact, offering scientists a rare chance to study a massive flying object with its own moon.

New horseshoe orbit Earth-companion asteroid discovered

April 6, 2011

( -- Apostolos Christou and David Asher from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland announced the discovery of an asteroid near Earth called Asteroid 2010 SO16 and their findings were published on ...

Recommended for you

Astronomers identify new asynchronous short period polar

October 16, 2017

(—An international team of astronomers led by Gagik H. Tovmassian of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) has uncovered new details into the nature of a cataclysmic variable known as IGR J19552+0044. ...

The remarkable jet of the quasar 4C+19.44

October 16, 2017

Quasars are galaxies with massive black holes at their cores. So much energy is being radiated from near the nucleus of a quasar that it is much brighter than the rest of the entire galaxy. Much of that radiation is at radio ...

On the generation of solar spicules and Alfvenic waves

October 13, 2017

Combining computer observations and simulations, a new model shows that the presence of neutrals in the gas facilitates the magnetic fields to penetrate through the surface of the Sun producing the spicules. In this study, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.3 / 5 (12) Oct 30, 2013
Surfs up! I loved the fiery explosion the asteroid had when it hit the ocean.
1.6 / 5 (14) Oct 30, 2013
By generating masses of red tape, this UN committee will undoubtedly cause any earth threatening asteroid to become hopelessly stalled.
1.3 / 5 (12) Oct 30, 2013
This means that if we then use the spacecraft rockets to back away we can let them fall together again. Do this for long enough and even a giant asteroid will be "towed" by the gravity of our little spacecraft.

Gravity tractor is less efficient than simply pushing the asteroid.

When you use a tractor method, your propellant will go backwards into the asteroid, pushing it away from the ship, thus off-setting some of the work you just did.

If the Asteroid is relatively small, breaking it into smaller pieces actually is very, very good.

By drastically increasing the surface area, you increase the total friction and the total exposure to air, and hence the asteroid can burn up much more quickly.

If the Russion meteor had been broken into perhaps 8 pieces or so, before it ever hit the atmosphere, it's easily possible that nobody would have been hurt or had property damage, because it would have burned up much higher in the atmosphere.

1.4 / 5 (11) Oct 30, 2013
A unit cube has surface area of 6 square units.

8 half-unit cubes (same volume) has surface area 12 square units.

The second object would experience double the friction, and therefore would burn up twice as fast, preventing the air burst from being close enough to the ground to have caused that type of damage.

Of course, you can't prevent the odd 1-ton chunk of the thing hitting something. However, doing something" is better than doing "nothing" effectually.

However, legally, if you shoot it and break it up, and a 1 ton rock hits someone's house and kills half their family, you'll still get sued for "negligence" even though your actions probably saved thousands, or potentially millions, of lives.
2.5 / 5 (19) Oct 30, 2013
The UN has failed to even prevent genocide in Rwanda, and will fail to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. They were not even willing to determine and state whether Assad used chemical weapons. It is thus a joke that they can protect us from asteroids and the global climate.

Their purpose is to form a socialist global government to redistribute wealth, regulate world economies, and regulate human behavior. They need to be defunded and disbanded immediately.
not rated yet Oct 30, 2013
@Lurker - you are correct that numerous small rocks is generally better than one big rock (or one big boulder pile) hitting earth.
In addition to more surface area directly from the smaller rocks, slamming into the atmosphere will also shatter small and mid-sized rocks and cause them to release their energy high in the atmosphere, whereas a large impactor can hit the the ground intact.
And if we know long enough in advance and shatter a big rock or pile far away, then most of the fragments will miss earth, at least on the first pass.
And even if we don't know that far in advance, a cluster of fragments spread over 10,000 square miles of ocean will create much less of a tsunami than one big impactor.

There are. of course complications (e.g., what if a big impactor is headed for desert - is that better than 100 smaller fragments scattered randomly around the globe?) . But in generally smaller fragment are less damaging, even pound for pound.
1.3 / 5 (12) Oct 31, 2013
Two stage impactor - a large iron rod to lead the nuclear bomb, by a fair distance - by seperating from it and flying ahead and then the bomb flies into the hole behind it, maximising the blast from a surface explosion, into an internal explosion.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 03, 2013
Two scenarios.
A paint job or cast a shadow. Each vary solar pressure.
The effect is named after a Russian mathematician.
America supports a paint job.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.