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DART showed we can deflect asteroids! Can it be more precise?

Many of us would be a huge fan of Deep Impact and Armageddon. Those movies were awesome, packed with action, and, of course, featured an asteroid heading straight for Earth. What’s not to love? Both flicks explored the ways humanity could dodge a collision, but let’s face it, real life is a bit less Hollywood.

One popular approach is to go for a single impact, like what the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission showed. However, a new paper suggests a pretty interesting and possibly more effective alternative.

Astronomers have been on the asteroid watch for ages, worried about the chance of one smacking into Earth. The odds of a major disaster in any given year are crazy low, but the potential impact, if it does happen, is no joke. On the mild side, we might get a spectacular fireball, but as the size of the space rock goes up, we’re talking tsunamis, fires, and a total game-changer for our atmosphere.

Finding a needle in a haystack

The good news is, we’re keeping our eyes peeled. There’s a constant hustle to spot and track bits of space rock, and we’re cooking up plans to figure out how to protect ourselves. But, even with all these top-notch precautions, spotting asteroids in space, especially the small and sneaky dark ones, is like searching for a cosmic needle in a haystack.

So, it’s not a matter of if but when—we’re bound to find an asteroid heading our way someday! Right now, the plans mostly revolve around a “big bang” strategy. That means either slamming a high-speed spacecraft into the asteroid or setting off a device nearby. But honestly, both methods are kind of like a “hit and hope” situation!

Here’s a cool idea from Nahum Melamed and Tom Heinsheimer: instead of the usual big explosions, they suggest a different approach in their paper. Their plan involves using material ejection to gently tweak an object’s path. They want to land a centrifuge and power supply on the asteroid, gather bits of it, and shoot them out into space. The transfer of momentum from this recoil would gradually shift the asteroid’s course away from Earth.

Also Read: Here’s what next-gen Event Horizon Telescope will be able to do

This method has some potential

What’s cool about this method, for starters, is that it’s not just a shot in the dark like the “big bang” choices. Instead, it lets us do some “ejection, measurement, and repetition” to carefully tweak the trajectory and make more adjustments as needed. The best part? It’s super flexible. We can consider the landing site, how fast the asteroid is spinning, and its velocity. Plus, we can fine-tune things like the direction, timing, and mass of the ejections to fit the situation.

The crew thinks this method could’ve redirected asteroids the size of Chelyabinsk and Tunguska in just a few weeks, and even Bennu, which could be trouble in the late 22nd century, could be nicely steered clear with just a few years of this operation. This innovative and effective solution seems like it’s about to shake up the whole planetary defense game, giving Bruce Willis and his gang a chance to kick back, retire those space suits, and enjoy the show.

Knowing of their existence is paramount

But here’s the catch: if you can’t spot an asteroid, you can’t gauge the threat it poses. And guess what? There are a bunch of them out there, some big enough to wipe out cities or even trigger mass-extinction events, all cruising around our star on unpredictable paths, according to the experts chatting with Live Science.

It’s a harsh reality that’s got astronomers both concerned about potential disasters and determined to uncover as many hidden asteroids in our solar system as possible. Once we know about them, we can keep tabs on the dangerous ones and nudge them off course if necessary. And if all else fails, at least we can give people a heads-up to move away and avoid the catastrophe.

At this moment, the Sun’s in a game of hide-and-seek with a bunch of asteroids. There’s this gang of Apollo asteroids that are always spinning around, mostly chilling way beyond Earth’s orbit but making occasional swings by the Sun. And then there’s the enigmatic Atens, a bunch of asteroids doing their thing mostly inside Earth’s orbit, always sticking to the sunny side of our planet.

“Aten asteroids are the most dangerous, because they cross Earth’s orbit just barely at their most distant point,” Scott Sheppard, a staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, told Live Science. “You would never see one coming, to some degree, because they’re never in the darkness of the night sky.”

Just like your regular asteroids, most of these crafty space rocks are likely small enough to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere if they happen to cross paths. But here’s the twist – there’s probably a bunch of undiscovered asteroids out there that are over 460 feet (140 m) in size. They’re big enough to make it through the atmosphere intact and cause some serious local chaos upon impact. These potentially disastrous asteroids are sometimes dubbed “city killers.”

Asteroids could be hiding in Sun’s glare

There might be some seriously massive things out there blending in with the Sun’s glare. It’s pretty rare, but there could be a couple of “planet killer” asteroids, each more than 3,280 feet (1 km) in size, playing a game of hide-and-seek. These giants have the potential to kick up so much dust that it could trigger a global extinction event, as Sheppard pointed out.

Flashback to 2022, Sheppard and his pals stumbled upon a planet killer doing a sneaky game of hide-and-seek with the Sun. They spilled all the juicy details in a paper in The Astronomical Journal. These researchers were on the lookout for asteroids loitering near Venus. They snagged some time on a bunch of massive telescopes, scanning the skies for five to ten minutes every evening at twilight. And what do you know, they stumbled upon 2022 AP7 – a colossal space giant stretching a mile wide (1.5 km) with a funky five-year orbit that basically keeps it invisible to telescopes most of the time.

As of now, 2022 AP7 only intersects with Earth’s orbit when we and the asteroid are on opposite sides of the Sun, so no need to stress. But here’s the twist – over thousands of years, that gap is gonna narrow, bringing the two closer and closer to a possible crash that could be disastrous. And you can bet there are probably more asteroids playing the same game.

Out there, way up in space, hundreds of miles above Earth and even beyond, space telescopes don’t have to put up with Earth’s atmosphere causing trouble. That’s a game-changer because it gives them a killer move: infrared imaging. This means they can detect the heat emitted by space objects, not just depend on the sunlight bouncing off them like regular telescopes do.

Also Read: Here’s how humans can use the power of black holes as batteries

Astronomers want to change asteroids into a space habitat

Astronomers have been fixated on the idea of humans living beyond Earth for ages. Missions have been in the works for Mars, aiming to check if we can establish a base on Martian soil. The plan is to use that base as a starting point for creating a human colony on our neighboring planet. But hold on, now it looks like this concept isn’t limited to nearby planets. Yep, a recent paper proposes the idea of turning an asteroid into a space habitat—and get this, they’re aiming to pull it off in just 12 years.

The idea of turning an asteroid into a spinning space home has been around for a while. However, it always seemed far-fetched because of tech limitations, leading to little attention. Now, in retirement, David W. Jensen, from Rockwell Collins, has taken up the challenge to explore space habitats. He’s put together a detailed plan to repurpose an asteroid into a living space. His 65-page publication breaks down an achievable, budget-friendly, and practical approach, making the concept clear and doable.

Digging deep into all the nitty-gritty details of the report goes beyond what we can cover in this article, but we can definitely spotlight the main points. Dr. Jensen’s breakdown has three main parts: picking the right asteroid, choosing the style of the habitat, and laying out the game plan for the mission, including selecting the right robotic tools.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.