The world is on high alert this week as a giant asteroid, the size of Eiffel Tower, is scheduled to make its way towards earth in December. Scientists are scrambling for new ways to deflect the asteroid away from our planet and have come up with some interesting ideas so far. They say that unless one of these methods work, it’s not looking good for humanity right now.
Earth is due to receive a visit from the huge asteroid on December 21, and scientists are working overtime to come up with methods of deflecting it. So far they have three proposals that they will discuss at a meeting in California this week. Nothing seems likely to be as effective as the Hollywood movie Gravity showed us though – as all three proposals involve ramming the asteroid with a spacecraft at great speed.
The first proposal is to simply land on it, drill into its surface and set off a nuclear bomb inside of it. Called the kinetic impactor method, this has been used before to achieve similar goals against smaller asteroids. In 2005 NASA’s Deep Impact space probe dropped an impactor the size of a washing machine onto the surface of comet Tempel 1. They then used a high-resolution camera on board to observe the crater created by the impact – and were even able to obtain samples from inside it, before it vaporized.
The second proposal is similar but involves two spacecraft that would approach either side of the asteroid and fire ion beams at it, changing the course of the asteroid by slowing down one side and speeding up the other. This would be done repeatedly over a number of years until the rock was diverted away from earth.
The third is called gravity tractor; where a spacecraft is parked alongside an asteroid and uses its gravitational field to pull on it, changing its direction. This would be far preferable as no fuel is needed and there would be less danger to those on earth if anything goes wrong.
Gravity tractor has been used successfully before already. In 2005 an asteroid named 5145 Phaethon was caught in a tractor beam for a full 17 days, but the problem is that the right type of spacecraft would be required to do it. NASA’s only craft capable of the job, the 70m-long Aladdin probe, was retired in 2011 and is now on display at Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre.
Another plan is to enlist the Canadian government for help by launching a probe that will rendezvous with one of the planet’s largest asteroids, named 4179 Toutatis. The spacecraft would then fire a harpoon into the surface of it and use cables to adjust its orbit around earth.
Other suggestions have included detonating nuclear devices or using lasers to vaporize the asteroid, but both proposals could create even bigger problems.
The one thing that scientists are certain of is that they need to launch a space probe soon if they want to successfully divert the asteroid away from earth. The rock won’t hit us for another month, but after December 21st it’ll be too late.