We Might Be Able to Nuke Asteroids to Save the Planet After All

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For years, the common belief has been that no matter what Hollywood movies have told you, you can’t just destroy an incoming asteroid with atomic bombs to save the planet. The logic is pretty simple; Blasting space rock into pieces would cause an even more deadly rain of smaller astroids that would bombard the entire surface of the earth. However, a new simulation by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) suggests that the nuclear “disruption” of an asteroid could be a viable optioneven if the expected effects are only months away. Of course, that only works if you can deliver a spaceship to the asteroid, which still requires a lot of planning.

A large enough space rock could mean the game for humanity. At best, we know about this asteroid well in advance and can prepare a strategy to deflect it. NASA begins work on the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which will send a space probe to the Didymos double asteroid system. The hope is that by introducing the DART impactor into Dimorphos, the smaller of the two rocks, the trajectory can be changed. If successful, this could be magnified to throw a dangerous asteroid off course. Without a long lead time, a diversion won’t work and that could leave us (literally) the nuclear option.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will be the first demonstration of kinetic impactor technology to alter the movement of an asteroid in space. (Photo: NASA)

According to lead author Patrick King, there is reason to believe that a nuclear weapon could save us. With a program called Spheral developed at LLNL, King is modeling the effects of a one-megaton atomic bomb that explodes just above the surface of a 100-meter-high asteroid. The simulation can estimate the effects on the asteroid body and trace the course of the fragments left behind after the explosion. It even took into account the gravitational effects of other objects in the solar system.

After testing the hypothetical asteroid in five different orbits, the study concluded that 99 percent of the fragments of a shattered asteroid would miss the planet as long as we managed to hit it more than a month before the impact. The result is even better when we have more time. Two months before a fiery death rains down on the planet, an atomic bomb can deflect 99.9 percent of the asteroid’s mass.

So far we’ve only talked about small 100 meter objects. Although these are potentially dangerous, the rocks with extinction are at least many times larger. But a nuclear strike could help here too. King found that a larger asteroid could blow to pieces six months before impact and 99 percent of the debris would miss us. The timeline could be a problem depending on how early we spot the asteroid. Missions such as JAXA’s OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 have successfully landed on asteroids, but have been in the planning phase for years.

We are just beginning to learn about the composition of asteroids, so the simulation may contain some incorrect assumptions. For example, asteroids like Bennu could be built like heaps of rubble rather than mountains, making them less dense and easier to destroy. Missions like DART help pin down the details. NASA plans to launch the spacecraft on November 23, and it will reach its destination in about 11 months.

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