Imagine this if you will: Tomorrow, you read the news to find that sea levels are still rising as are food prices. Oh, and a world-ending asteroid is headed straight for Earth.
As unlikely as an asteroid impact is right now, asteroids are very real and have changed the face of the Earth at least once.
After all, it was an asteroid that singlehandedly wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, paving the way for the “Jurassic Park” films. What’s more, scientists believe it is not a question of “if” but “when” an asteroid will hit Earth again.
But, is there actually anything that humanity can do to save itself? On the occasion of World Asteroid Day today, FMT explores what options humanity has in this unlikely but possible apocalyptic scenario.
1. Push it away
Destroying an asteroid is a monumental effort, and some scientists suggest it would be more feasible to push it out of the way instead.
Ramming a massive object like a spaceship into an asteroid might just be enough to alter its orbit, allowing it to pass Earth without issue.
This is what Nasa did in 2005 when its “Deep Impact” mission saw a 370kg probe knock a comet off course by ramming into it at speeds of 8km/s.
However, this only applies to smaller objects, and a bigger space rock would likely shake off the impact and continue on its merry way towards Earth.
2. Blow it up
With humanity’s arsenal bristling with nuclear weapons, it is quite possible to shoot a nuclear device at an asteroid and allow the ensuing explosion to shatter the rock to pieces.
A 2007 Nasa analysis found that knocking an asteroid off course with nuclear and non-nuclear explosions is plausible, with nukes likely shattering the asteroid.
However, in 2019, researchers at Johns Hopkins University advised against taking this course of action after computer simulations showed that over time, the shattered fragments would reassemble, once again posing a threat to Earth.
3. Paint it white
In a case of truth being stranger than fiction, one serious suggestion to stop asteroids is to simply paint one side of an asteroid white.
Radiation pressure, or that slight push of the sun’s energy, will push harder on the reflective white paint, pushing the asteroid and altering its orbit away from Earth.
Alternate versions of this idea include using solar sails that attach themselves to the asteroid and steer it away from Earth.
Researchers of Texas A&M University meanwhile suggest testing the paint method out on the asteroid Apophis, calculated to come uncomfortably close to Earth in 2029.
4. Use a tractor
One long-term proposed solution is to fly a massive spacecraft next to an asteroid that is likely to hit Earth.
It is a scientific fact that all objects with mass have gravity, with massive objects having even stronger gravity, pulling nearby objects closer to it.
For the next decade, the mutual gravity between the spacecraft and the asteroid may just be enough to steer the asteroid away from its original orbit.
The problem with this plan, however, is the fact that you would need to be able to detect the asteroid long beforehand.
However, Nasa analysis from 2007 revealed that it was highly expensive and quite impractical, requiring “mission durations of many years to decades” to actually work.
5. Steam it
No, this plan does not involve sending the asteroid to the nearest Chinese restaurant.
Space rocks often contain huge chunks of frozen material, including water. This, some scientists believe, could be the solution to the problem.
By aiming a laser or the sun’s rays via mirrors at the asteroid, the frozen bits of the asteroid may melt or better yet, evaporate.
These jets of air will act as a propulsion system, pushing the asteroid possibly out of Earth’s path.
In 2015, University of California researcher, Travis Brashears, conducted experiments proving that lasers can slow or accelerate the speed of an asteroid, so the idea works – theoretically at least.
However, it is hard to say if any of these ideas would work, or if satellites will be able to detect dangerous asteroids in time for humanity to react.
Hence, it’s always good to live your life to the fullest today and wonder if cats will become the next dominant species upon humanity’s extinction. Long live the feline overlords!