Key difference…replace a wrench with an asteroid, and then dodge it.

As the title sort of hints at it the TED talk that I watched focused on asteroids and the amount of damage that these pieces of space junk have caused to our planet. The discussion was led by Phil Phait who started off by talking about how the dinosaurs got screwed by getting hit with such a large asteroid . The video was labeled under the “entertaining category” thus I set the bar pretty high in terms of this video keeping my interest for the fourteen minutes and sixteen seconds that it was supposed to run, and for the most part it did (even though the middle was a little dry).

Essentially Mr. Phait talks about the possible catastrophic results that could occur from the impact of a single asteroid, and how that could severely damage and alter our lifestyles. He makes a clear point that the asteroid that made dinosaurs extinct was very large, but as humans, we should be more concerned about the ones that fall in the range of 30-50 yards across, as there are more of them found in space. These medium sized asteroids are equivalent of creating a 20 megaton nuclear bomb upon impact. Apparently as asteroids break through Earth’s atmosphere they are capable of exploding before hitting Earth’s surface such as the one in Tunguska, Siberia in 1908.

Phil points out that luckily the asteroids that have been able to get by Earth’s atmosphere have not hit major populated areas, as they would create a lot of casualties and damage the global economy. Even though this has not happened yet, it is something to be cognizant of, and as we continuously search for asteroids that may be passing nearby. He talks about two possible ideas that could help humans dodge the next upcoming asteroid.

The first of these ideas involves simply hitting the incoming object with some sort of a man made probe. This has already been done as NASA was successfully able to hit a comet, even though their real intention was mine the rock on the comment and hitting was the only way they could achieve that . But the problem with hitting the asteroid is that sometime it is very difficult to estimate how much or how far the trajectory of its orbit was altered from this impact.

The second option involves using with what is considered the much softer approach. This method uses a probe that has some significant amount of weight behind it (1-2 tons) and essentially “parking” it along the side of the incoming asteroid. Instead of ramming the probe into the asteroid, you would let gravity take over as it slowly pulled in the probe towards the asteroid. The key to making this process happen is the invention of ion thrusts. Now I know I am starting to sound like a super nerd by this point, but it’s pretty cool stuff that one day could save our planet. The reason why these ion thrusts are so important is that the current chemical rockets create too much push which force the probe to move out of the created orbit with the asteroid. The ion thrust can run for a very long time, which would allow a continuous push by the probe, allowing the controllers of the probe to move the trajectory of the probe while altering the trajectory of the asteroid to their desired angle.

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2 responses »

  1. Mike says:

    I think the second option is smarter. The first option could potentially waste a probe for a chance to change the comet’s trajectory. The second option seems more manageable to continously attempt to move it without crashing the probe. If that fails, you can always detach the probe and crash it into anyway.

  2. Marko says:

    Very funny video clip. Of course I didn’t had a clue you will talk about asteroids so much after the clip, but definitely a cool way to catch someone’s attention. Like anybody else with little knowledge of science and who grew up on Hollywood movies, my first reaction was “nuke the asteroid”. I think I even saw few movies where they actually shoot the missiles at the asteroid, which breaks like pinata. However, hearing about the second option really gage my interest. The concept of using the gravity and ion thrusts to dislocate the asteroid from its orbit is very smart. I am glad that scientist are coming up with more advanced solutions instead of simply using the brute force.

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