MIT Engineers Create Method to Deflect Future Earth-Threatening Asteroids

Katie Ramirez
February 26, 2020

Experts say there as many as two or three new asteroids, sometimes called 'Near Earth Objects, ' discovered every night.

They take into account the asteroid's mass and momentum, its proximity to a gravitational keyhole, and the amount of warning time for scientists, all of which would need to be precise in order to ensure maximum accuracy, which would be critical in a planet-saving mission.

According to scientists, it is more likely that an asteroid unknown to us until the last minute (a la Chelyabinsk in 2013) will wreak havoc than one we are now aware of. The simplest is a single kinetic impactor, which we would fire into the object shortly before it reaches a keyhole to push it off course.

Researchers have applied this method to Apophis and Bennu, near-Earth asteroids that are targeted by OSIRIS-REx, a NASA operational mission that attempts to bring a sample of Bennu's surface to our planet by 2023.

"People have mostly considered strategies of last-minute deflection, when the asteroid has already passed through a keyhole and is heading toward a collision with Earth", Sung Wook Paek, of MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, told MIT News. "It's like a preemptive strike, with less mess", says Paek.

“Does it matter if the probability of success of a mission is 99.9 percent or only 90 percent? However, the majority of scientists trust it is never too premature to contemplate a game plan for averting an asteroid if one were ever on a crash course with our Earth. MIT co-author Olivier de Weck said. "Therefore we have to be smarter when we design missions as a function of the level of uncertainty". The researchers also found that these two asteroids have an orbiting time of 45 to 50 hours.

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Another involved dispatching a "scout" before the projectile, to measure the asteroid and advise scientists on what type of projectile to resort to.

These new mission possibilities include a basic kinetic impactor to deflect the asteroid off-course, sending a scout first to measure the asteroid before building a projectile to hit it away, and sending two scouts - one to measure and one to hit it slightly off its path before a larger projectile is launched. The tests showed that with five or more years, the best course is to send two scouts and then the projectile.

Should an asteroid the size of Bennu or Apophis actually collide with Earth, "the result would be regional devastation the size of a large USA state", co-author and MIT professor of planetary science Richard Binzel told CBS News on Thursday.

After tomorrow's approach, the asteroid's next near-Earth intersection is expected to occur on August 15, 2108.

“Instead of changing the size of a projectile, we may be able to change the number of launches and send up multiple smaller spacecraft to collide with an asteroid, one by one.

But as scary as it sounds, the chances of impact are pretty remote, and experts say everyday citizens shouldn't be too anxious.

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