Earth vs. a Killer Asteroid: Nuke or Nudge?

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico have used a supercomputer to model and test different ways to save Earth from a theoretical doomsday asteroid collision. They used actual data from asteroid Golevka, which is .33 miles across and weighs 460 billion pounds. The first question researchers posed: Is it better to pulverize the asteroid with one huge nuclear blast, or push it off-course with a number of smaller nuclear blasts? Read about it here, on Space.com.

It often surprises lay people that catastrophic impacts will certainly occur on Earth; we simply do not know when. Astronomer David Levy has said that the first warning we may get is the shock wave from a planet-killing object as it pierces the upper atmosphere, 5 seconds before impacting the ground. While research into NEOs (Near-Earth Objects) continues so that we may avoid that scenario, we still have many potentially dangerous objects to discover. Given enough lead time, we also have plausible defensive alternatives to blowing up an incoming threat, such as attaching huge solar sails, or merely painting it a dark color so that the Yarkovsky Effect—a miniscule push on a celestial body as it absorbs heat from the Sun and re-radiates it back into space—will gently coax it to a different, safer course. These alternatives take time to work, so adequate foreknowledge is a must. Finally, we do not yet have a delivery mechanism for any planet-saving solution.

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