What would be Earth’s defense system when an asteroid does hit the planet? Would we able to deflect an incoming asteroid in time, especially one that is capable of causing mass damage? The engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( MIT) have devised a system to figure out the best solution to deflect an incoming asteroid, especially the potential planet-killers.
The system designed by MIT researchers, isn’t just one of simply launching nuclear weapons at the incoming asteroid or relying on “kinetic impactor” such as a a spacecraft, rocket, or other projectile to veer it off course. Rather, MIT researchers have devised a decision map to look into the best kind of mission that would deflect an asteroid.
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.
“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. I’m interested in preventing keyhole passage well before Earth impact. It’s like a preemptive strike, with less mess,” Sung Wook Paek, lead author of the study told MIT news.
The researchers have presented their system as part of a paper, which will be published in the journal Acta Astronautica later this month.
Apophis and Bennu asteroid
The decision map is based on designing a system that would most likely succeed in deflecting a potentially hazardous asteroid. The researchers ran their simulations keeping mind two asteroids: Apophis and Bennu, which are expected to have a close approach to Earth.
Asteroid 99942 Apophis, which is named after the Egyptian god of chaos and is wider than the Eiffel Tower at 370 metres, was expected to hit Earth by 2036. There’s also a close flyby in 2029. While recent observations show that the asteroid will flyby Earth without incident in both years, should Apophis ever hit Earth, it would have a devastating impact.
Bennu is another asteroid that NASA wants to study closely. The existing OSIRIS-REx mission is expected to return a sample of Bennu’s surface material to Earth in 2023. It is also listed as a potentially hazardous object. The mean diameter is 470 metres making it larger than Apophis and Bennu is classified as a near-Earth object.
According to Olivier de Weck, who is also a co-author in the paper, for the impactor method to be successful, the properties of the asteroid need to be known as “precisely as possible.” The researchers created a “simulation code to identify the type of asteroid deflection mission that would have the best possibility of success, given an asteroid’s set of uncertain properties,” according to MIT news.
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The plans also include whether there would be enough time to send a scouting mission to the asteroid, in order to get a more precise understanding of the object. The study also factored how close the asteroid was to gravitational keyhole, and the warning time scientists had before it passed through the keyhole.
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According to Paek, the keyhole is crucial, because once the asteroid passes through this, it will impact Earth, no matter what. That’s another reason why Apophis and Bennu were considered, their gravitational keyhole locations are known by scientists. For instance with Apophis, the scientists found that if it passes through its keyhole within one Earth year or less, it may be too late, even for the impactor strategy to work.
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