In the year 2032, an asteroid will blow up the planet. This, at least was the prediction made last week on Twitter by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Vice Premier, who also heads the country’s space research program. The asteroid in question recently hurled past Earth, but was not a threat. NASA predicts that this same asteroid will approach the planet again in 2032. When it does, could the threat of impact be negated by a paintball defense?
Called 2013 TV135, the asteroid came within 4.2 million miles of Earth. To put that in perspective, however, that distance is many times greater than the distance between our planet and the Moon. In February of this year, another asteroid, 2012 DA14, barely scraped by at a distance of just 17,200 miles.
Although NASA predicts the possibility of 2013 TV135 hitting Earth as a 1 in 63,000 chance, there are around 1000 objects in our galaxy that are large enough for their impact with Earth to be a catastrophic event. A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has suggested that the humble paintball may be one method of defense against such a threat.
In 2012, the United Nations sponsored a competition to devise a way to move, or deflect, a Near-Earth Object (NEO) that may be on a collision course with the planet. Sung Wook Paek has further developed the theory that won the contest, which suggested using paintball-like pellets to knock an object off course. In Paek’s version, an asteroid detected 20 years out and coming our way could be knocked off course with actual pant-filled paintballs fired in two volleys from a spacecraft. It is not the paintballs themselves that would push such an object away, but the steady bombardment by photons from the sun. It is believed that an asteroid light enough in color to reflect sunlight is subjected to a sufficient showering of photons that, over a long period of time, it is nudged onto a new trajectory. Paek has theorized that covering the incoming object with light-colored paint would increase this reflection of sunlight and force the change of course – although such a process may take up to 20 years. NASA’s Near Earth Objects Observation Program Manager, Lindley Johnson, called the idea “an innovative variation.” He believes that it is important for NASA to test and develop a variety of possible deflection techniques for NEOs.
The threat from asteroid 2013 TV135 is unlikely to require the paintball defense; according to NASA, it is unlikely to collide with Earth in 2032. Were that collision to occur, it would hardly be the dreaded extinction-level event conjured up in Hollywood movies and believed to have taken place three times in our planet’s history. 2013 TV135, discovered in early October by Ukranian astronomers, is approximately 1300 feet in diameter, which is still large enough to cause an unthinkable level of damage. The asteroid believed to have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs was an estimated six miles wide. 2012 DA14 was a mere 150 feet wide.
In 2008, Australian PhD student Mary D’Souza developed the idea of wrapping an incoming asteroid in Mylar film, a highly reflective material currently used on satellites. The idea was to deploy the material from a spacecraft or satellite that would closely orbit the asteroid, which would wrap itself as it rotated. Pressure from the increased solar radiation would then push the asteroid off course. This method was developed with an existing asteroid in mind; the almost 1100 feet wide object is scheduled to approach Earth in 2036. According to a report in the Australian media, scientists say the force of impact from such an object would equal the force of 110,000 Hiroshima bombs.
The paintball defense may also be used for the 2036 asteroid threat. According to NASA, the planet is, technically, due a major impact, which occurs approximately every 100 million years, according to the best estimates.
Graham J Noble