A Last-Minute Nuke to Shatter an Incoming Asteroid Could Actually Work, Study Suggests

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fairly difficult
Models suggest 99% of an asteroid's mass would fail to hit Earth after a disruptive nuclear strike.
Encouraging results from a computer simulation point to the use of nuclear devices as a viable defense against Earth- threatening asteroids that suddenly appear out of the blue.


The Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory runs an asteroid impact simulation once every two years. The exercise from earlier this year was unique in that the fictional threatening asteroid, dubbed "2021 PDC," was detected just six months before its scheduled meeting with Earth's surface. It was deemed an insufficient amount of time to deploy a mitigation strategy, so the participants focused primarily on disaster response. It served as a rude reminder of our vulnerability to these undiscovered asteroids.

Ideally, we'd have a few years or even decades to mount a response, such as using the gravitational influence of bulky spacecraft to gently nudge an asteroid from its Earth-bound trajectory. Alternatively, we could use kinetic impactors to change an object's path or a nuclear device to smash it into thousands of pieces. This latter strategy, known as disruption, is the kind of thing we've come to expect in mindless Hollywood films, but it could work if done decades in advance; over the years, the ensuing fragments would likely go on their own orbital journeys and no longer threaten Earth.

But as promising new research published in Acta Astronautica shows, the disruption strategy might even work on asteroids that are just months away from striking Earth. This is very good news, as it suggests we have a fighting chance against incoming asteroids that suddenly and unexpectedly appear on our radar.

That a nuclear bomb or some other powerful device could be used to break up an asteroid is hardly a revelation. The overarching question going into the new study was the fate of the resulting fragments. It seemed possible that the ensuing debris would continue their journey toward Earth, potentially making a bad situation even worse. The…
George Dvorsky
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