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Scientist: nuclear bombs could save Earth from killer asteroid

Artist's rendition of an asteroid hitting the Earth.
Artist's rendition of an asteroid hitting the Earth.

Scientist: nuclear bombs could save Earth from killer asteroid

Can the most destructive weapon ever devised by man be used to save our civilization from death by asteroid? Well, that is exactly what Bong Wie of Iowa State University said at the annual NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts conference at Stanford University

Speaking on the problem of an incoming killer asteroid Wie said that "We have the solution, using our baseline concept, to be able to mitigate the asteroid-impact threat, with any range of warning.” Unlike all previous doomsday mitigation scenarios that allow for years of advance notice, Wie's concept using nuclear weapons to stop an incoming asteroid could be used with only a few days warning.

Another new idea: Wie's concept calls for obliterating the asteroid.

In order to destroy the asteroid, Wie and his team is developing a concept spacecraft called the Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIV). The HAIV would rendezvous with an asteroid, then send a kinetic impactor at the object to blast out a crater. The nuclear bomb would follow one millisecond behind, possibly attached via a long boom, or even free-flying (this detail is yet to be finalized), and then detonate inside the hole, shattering the asteroid into “millions of tiny pieces.” According to Wie, exploding the bomb in a hole can increase its power by a factor of 20.

But what about the shotgun effect? While some fragments could impact Earth, Wie said that the effects should be “minimal,” and should lessen the more distant the explosion. As for exact figures, Wie estimates that only about a tenth of one percent of the asteroid's initial mass will survive to impact earth

As a reminder, Wie reminded his audience that a direct hit by an intact asteroid would be much, much worse for planet Earth and all life on it.

So, why the concern?

Yesterday marked the 1-year anniversary of a rather small space rock only about 50 feet across exploding over Russia, which set off a shockwave of over magnitude 5 on the Richter Scale and injured over 1,000 people, most by shattering, flying glass.

As of now, there are millions of asteroids floating around the solar system, mostly in the Main Asteroid Belt, which is safely between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Of the millions of asteroids 7,000 are classified as near-Earth. Of the near-Earth objects, over1,000 are considered as "potentially hazardous," which is defined as an object over 500 feet in diameter that can come within 4.6 million miles of Earth.

Obviously, a metallic space rock 500 feet across traveling at up to 15 miles per second could do an immense amount of damage. For comparison, the object (most likely a comet) that caused the Tunguska Incidentwas probably less than 100 yards (300 feet across) but still leveled forests for over 1,000 square miles.

Needless to say, if such an object (even a small one) were to hit a populated area, the death toll would be apocalyptic. Large impactor? Worldwide devastation and possibly an end to civilization as we know it, which is all the more reason to keep looking and working on planetary defense systems.

The problem with many doomsday scenarios: when contemplating ways to defend our planet, many planners always give several months and often years of notice. Problem: asteroids have a way of sneaking up on us, which is not hard to do considering that there are more people working at the average McDonald's than there are full-time asteroid hunters manning the world's observatories. With these few eyes scanning the sky, Wie's solution to the killer asteroid problem should be given some serious consideration thanks to its ability to be deployed with just days' notice.

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