The next time a hazardous asteroid lines Earth up in its crosshairs, we may be ready for the threat.
Scientists and engineers with the U.S. government have drawn up plans for a spacecraft that could knock big, incoming space rocks off course via blunt-force impact or blow them to bits with a nuclear warhead.
If we don’t know about an impact year in advance, it might be impossible to alter the asteroid’s course early enough. That’s why HAMMER also has a nuclear mode.
The researchers announced the concept vehicle, known as the Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response (HAMMER), in a study in the February issue of the journal Acta Astronautica. And the team will discuss HAMMER at an asteroid-research conference in May.
Each HAMMER spacecraft would weigh about 8.8 tons (8 metric tons). If an asteroid threat is detected early enough, a fleet of the vehicles could be dispatched to collide, nuke-free, with the space rock, changing its trajectory enough to spare Earth from an impact.
But this strategy wouldn’t work for big asteroids that appear out of the cosmic gloom with little warning; there wouldn’t be enough time for the nudge to take effect. To neutralize, or at least mitigate, such threats, a HAMMER would have to be outfitted with a nuke, the study team stressed.
“Whenever practical, the kinetic impactor is the preferred approach, but various factors, such as large uncertainties or short available response time, reduce the kinetic impactor’s suitability and, ultimately, eliminate its sufficiency,” the researchers wrote in the Acta Astronautica paper. The research is part of a broader study by NASA and the National Nuclear Security Agency to better understand humanity’s options when presented with a potentially threatening near-Earth object (NEO).
In a new study, NASA used the asteroid Bennu as a hypothetical test for the HAMMER program.
The agency’s OSIRIS-REx mission is closing in on the space rock with the aim of collecting a sample from its surface later this year.
Researchers used the trajectory calculations of OSIRIS-REx for the hypothetical HAMMER mission. This wasn’t just a shortcut for the sake of sending time. There’s a small 1-in-2,700 chance that Bennu could collide with Earth in 2035.
The 1,600 foot (487 meters), 74 billion pound (33.5 billion kilograms) space rock would produce a 1.15 gigaton explosion if it struck Earth. That’s about 23 times larger than the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever detonated, and it’s far from the biggest asteroid out there.
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