Scientists aren't entirely sure when the last major asteroid hit the Earth, but it's certain to happen again. And Alan Harris, asteroid researcher at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), is hoping to head the next one off. Last month, Harris established an international collaboration of 13 researchers to investigate methods of shielding the Earth from near Earth objects (NEOs). The project is, appropriately, called NEOShield.
Top image: NASA/Don Davis.
Asteroids approaching the planet typically travel between 5 and 30 kilometres (about 5 to 19 miles) per second. As that speed, a moderate sized body can have major consequences. The Barringer Crater in Arizona, often referred to as Meteor Crater, is a 1,200 metre crater (about 3,950 feet or 0.7 miles) that scientists hypothesize was caused by a 50 metre (164 feet) meteor.
The bad news is that there are thousands of known NEOs just like the one that made Meteor Crater, leading experts to posit that a dangerous collision could occur as often as every two hundred years.
The good news is that it's possible to stop an asteroid hitting the Earth. You just have to be in the right place at the right time to give the object the right push in another direction. Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.
Scientists are focusing on possible methods of redirecting threatening asteroids so they miss the Earth. "In order to modify their orbit and prevent a collision with Earth, a force must be exerted on them," explains Alan Harris. "And at the precise time, as well." One way to do this is to have a spacecraft impact a threatening asteroid, imparting enough force to change its orbit. "In my opinion, this is a very practical method," said Harris. But there are still questions to answer, like how to guide the spacecraft to a moving target at the right angle for the right impact and how to minimize the effects of fuel movement on the spacecraft's path.
Another way is to use the spacecraft's gravitational pull to nudge the asteroid into a different orbit. If the object is far enough away, a tiny tug could have a big effect. But so far, "this method only exists on paper," said Harris, "but it could work."
An asteroid, docile in space but deadly to Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Another third, less appealing prospect, is to use explosive power to break up an Earth-bound asteroid. But this could be disastrous, creating a shower of debris instead of one solid piece. As such, Harris considers this method a last resort. "If a very large, dangerous object with a diameter of one kilometre [0.6 miles] or more is discovered," explains Harris, changing its orbit won't be a option. "The greatest force we would be able to use to divert the asteroid from its path would be a nuclear explosion. This technique is regarded as a very controversial."
Over the next three years, during which the European Union will support the project with four million Euros and international partners will contribute an additional 1.8 million Euros, the NEOShield project will research these defence methods. The scientists will focus on data from asteroid observations and lab experiments to generate computer simulations, ultimately determining how best to protect the Earth from future devastating impacts.
This article Amy Shira Teitel originally appeared at Universe Today. Amy Shira Teitel is an historian of spaceflight, blogger, and freelance writer. Her blog, Vintage Space , chronicles her love of space history and manned space exploration. She contributes to Universe Today and motherboard.tv.