An illustration shows a rocket approaching an asteroid that’s drifted too close to Earth. A scout probe orbits nearby.
If a giant object looks like it’s going to slam into Earth, humanity has a few options: Hammer it with a spacecraft hard enough to knock it off course, blast it with nuclear weapons, tug on it with a gravity tractor, or even slow it down using concentrated sunlight.
We’ll have to decide whether to visit it with a scout mission first, or launch a full-scale attack immediately.
Those are a lot of decisions to make under existential duress, which is why a team of MIT researchers have come up with a guide, published February in the journal Acta Astronautica, to help future asteroid deflectors.
In movies, an incoming asteroid is usually a very last-minute shock: a big, deadly rock hurtling right toward Earth like a bullet out of the darkness, with only weeks or days between its discovery and its projected impact. That is a real threat, according to an April 2019 presentation by NASA’s Office of Planetary Defense that Live Science attended. But NASA believes that it’s spotted most of the largest, deadliest objects that have even a small chance of striking Earth — the so-called planet killers. (Of course, there are probably plenty of smaller rocks — still large enough to kill whole cities — that remain undiscovered.)
Because most of the large objects in Earth’s neighborhood are already being closely watched, we’ll likely have plenty of warning before one strikes Earth. Astronomers watch these space rocks as they get near Earth to see whether they’re likely to cross through one of their “keyholes.” Every Earth-threatening asteroid gets closer and further from Earth at different points in its orbit around the sun. And along that path, near Earth, it has keyholes. Those keyholes are regions of space that it has to pass through in order to end up on a collision course during its next approach to our planet..
“A keyhole is like a door — once it’s open, the asteroid will impact Earth soon after, with high probability,” Sung Wook Paek, lead author of the study and a Samsung engineer who was an MIT graduate student when the paper was written, said in a statement.
The easiest time to stop an object from hitting Earth is before it hits one of those keyholes, according to the paper. That will keep the object from getting on the route toward an impact in the first place — at which point saving Earth would require far more resources and energy, and involve much more risk.
Paek and his co-authors tossed out most of the more exotic asteroid-deflection schemes out of hand, leaving only nuclear detonation and impactors as serious options. Nuclear detonation is problematic as well, they wrote, because it’s uncertain exactly how an asteroid will behave after a nuclear explosion and because political concerns about nuclear weapons could cause problems for the mission.
In the end, they landed on three options for missions that could reasonably be prepared on short notice if a planet-killer asteroid were spotted heading toward a keyhole: