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NASA Is Testing Planetary Defense

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NASA
Courtesy of Amy the Nurse (Flickr CC0)

NASA is testing Planetary Defense as a way to protect Earth from incoming asteroids and comets. The agency has successfully tested the system in a spacecraft simulation, firing a “kill vehicle” that caused an asteroid-like object to explode at close range. If such an object were to impact Earth’s atmosphere, it would cause widespread damage and death, so NASA is looking for ways to defend the planet.

The U.S. government is taking steps to protect its citizens from space rocks, which are coming closer and closer every year. Not only do asteroids pose a threat to humans but also to many species on this planet.

Did you see the article about the asteroid that’s going to hit the Earth in 2029?

It’s not a big one. It won’t wipe out life as know it and all of the technology will be safe, but still — it’s coming through. And NASA has been testing planetary defense against this threat for years now.

They’ve been working on a way to stop asteroids from hitting forever (and they’ve found some success). Let’s talk more about how they’re doing this.

The PDCO (Planetary Defense Coordination Office) has a team of more than 100 scientists and engineers who work to identify potential threats, monitor their orbits, and predict when they’ll approach Earth.

They also develop plans for how to respond if an impact occurs. In 2018, NASA launched a mission called NEOCam that will help track NEOs over time so can better understand how many there are — and where they’re going next.

In fact, it’s not just the asteroid itself that they want to prevent from hitting — they also want to know what kind of impact it would have if it did hit.

The plan involves launching a spacecraft called NEOCam (Near-Earth Object Camera) into orbit around Earth and then following the asteroid as it moves through space toward the planet.

The idea is that this camera will be able to observe any changes or deformations that occur as an asteroid gets closer and closer until finally collides with the planet itself.

The test they’re conducting simulates a scenario where know an asteroid will hit the Earth 10 years from now. The goal is to see if can deflect it, not destroy it or stop its journey.

The main proposal comes from a NASA scientist named Ed Lu, who proposes either deflecting or destroying an asteroid that is heading for Earth. The plan involves launching one spacecraft to follow the asteroid and collect data about it, and another spacecraft that would intercept the asteroid and detonate a nuclear bomb.

The blast would either destroy most of the asteroid or knock it off course enough that it misses entirely. If this sounds extreme (and it should), remember that talking about saving human civilization is here.

NASA
Courtesy of Chris Morgan (Flickr CC0)

It’s not just some random rock: there’s no guarantee that an object this big will hit us even once in our lifetime — but if people don’t try anything now, maybe there won’t be any humans left alive at all within 100 years from now.

Lu’s plan would involve launching one spacecraft to follow the asteroid and collect data about it, and another spacecraft that would intercept the asteroid and detonate a nuclear bomb. The goal is to change its course so it misses Earth by a wide margin.

The idea was first proposed in an 1845 paper by Russian mathematician Nikolai Ivanovic Lobachevsky, who suggested using “an exceedingly violent explosion” to destroy an object that threatened humanity’s survival.

If wondering what kind of blast would be needed to do this, it’s not as simple as just throwing a bomb into the asteroid. The impact has to be strong enough for all the pieces to come crashing down together in one massive lump — but also small enough that none of them hit Earth or its atmosphere.

NASA has a test and it is called “Neptune Patrol”, and it only takes about a month for a spacecraft to travel from the earth’s orbit to Neptune.

This means having to build something with an incredibly high yield (the amount of energy released) but still being able to hit the target at a very low speed (so it doesn’t explode).

NASA is testing out this concept with their Deep Impact mission: they fired two high-speed projectiles into Comet Temple 1 and studied how they impacted the icy surface below.

Their findings showed that if shoot projectile at 20 kilometers per second (12 miles per second), then it shouldn’t break any laws when it strikes something solid; in fact, according to their simulations most objects would just bounce off without much damage done.

One of the most promising proposals for planetary defense is a combination of solar sails and kinetic energy. This would use the radiation from the sun to propel a spacecraft, which could then use its kinetic energy to alter an asteroid’s course.

The second plan involves using solar sails to get to an asteroid more quickly and then using kinetic energy to alter its course.

NASA is testing planetary defense systems so that we can protect our planet and its inhabitants from alien threats. The tests have been successful, but they need to be continued in order to prevent future attacks.

By Daniel Batalla

Sources:

NPR: Move over, Bruce Willis: NASA is shoving an asteroid to test planetary defense by  NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE

Space: Asteroid apocalypse: How big must a space rock be to end human civilization? by  

Phys: NASA to deflect asteroid in key test of planetary defense by Issam AHMED

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Amy the Nurse Flickr Page Creative Commons License

Insert Image Courtesy of Chris Morgan Flickr Page Creative Commons License

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