In February 2013, an asteroid about the size of a house punched through Earth’s atmosphere and smashed into the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia. The explosion was so powerful, it left a bright streak in the sky and caused a powerful shockwave, shattering glass and injuring more than 1,000 people.
Sure, it’s not armageddon, but even asteroids as small as Chelyabinsk—which is measured roughly 62 feet (19 meters) across-can cause some major damage to Earth and are more likely to pass through the inner Solar System than their larger counterparts.
A California-based nonprofit is preparing to combat these smaller, albeit more common, threats by designing a new asteroid deflection system that will use the space rock’s own regolith to alter its trajectory away from Earth. .
“We’re looking at things that are the same size [to the Chelyabinsk asteroid] that could happen in our lifetime,” Nahum Melamed, a project leader at The Aerospace Corporation, told Gizmodo in an interview. “And we’ve shown that we can divert them to that system in about a few weeks of operation. “
Melamed is inspired by SpinLaunch’s suborbital acceleratora giant, 165 feet tall (50 meter) kinetic launch system at Spaceport America, New Mexico, which spin payloads to 10,000 g’s before throwing them to suborbital heights. Accelerator is successful catapult a NASA payload in October 2022.
“How can I use this system to stop an asteroid?” Melamed remembers asking himself when he was invited by SpinLaunch to give a talk about planetary defense a few years ago. The idea is to create a simplified version of the suborbital accelerator that can be launched upon rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid.
Once it reaches the asteroid, the centrifugal system will anchor itself to the space rock and begin collecting small amounts of regolith (about 20 pounds at a time) and eject. they are in space. “By pushing it away from the asteroid, the asteroid will retract and be deflected a little bit,” Melamed said. “So over time, through a repeated process over weeks and months, we should deflect the asteroid.”
The centrifuge is a relatively simple system that runs on electricity, so it could hypothetically run forever. Smaller asteroids between 30 to 60 meters can be deflected in a few weeks while larger asteroids can take months, according to The Aerospace Corporation.
The researchers behind the new planetary defense concept argue that it will be easier to implement compared to more complex systems, in particular. NASA’s DART mission. On September 26, 2022 the DART spacecraft slapped directly at an asteroid, successfully changing its orbit by 32 minutes.
“This approach is like hitting an asteroid and it deflects in one shot,” Melamed said. “The mission is complex, it will take a lot of time to build the spacecraft and get it out into space and there is no guarantee of success.” The centrifuge approach, on the other hand, helps mitigate the potential danger of an incoming asteroid by adding a sustainable and repeatable slow-push strategy to the planetary defense toolbox, according to the Aerospace Corporation.
When it comes to protecting Earth from cosmic threats, it sure doesn’t hurt to have more options. “It’s great to keep thinking of new ways to deflect asteroids,” Seth Jacobson, an assistant professor of planetary sciences at Michigan State University, told Gizmodo in an email. “This approach is like turning asteroid regolith into a kind of rocket fuel and it’s very creative.”
The anchored centrifuge ejects the asteroid’s regolith at a speed of 0.6 to 1.2 miles per second (1 to 2 kilometers per second) in the direction of the asteroid velocity vector to deflect the space rock away from Earth.
The Aerospace Corporation wants to test its planetary defense in two years with an Earth-based test, developing a small prototype that can be tested in the lab first. If all goes well with the Earth-based test, the company wants to test its centrifugal system on the Moon, which hurls pieces of regolith from the moon’s surface into space. “If it’s successful, then the next stage is to develop some kind of an operational way of building that system to be used for planetary defense on a routine basis,” Melamed said.
As it stands today, there are no known asteroids that pose a threat to Earth within the next 100 years. NASA continues to monitor near-Earth objects; the space agency currently monitors 28,000 space rocks.
Meanwhile, the Aerospace Corporation thought it could use its centrifugal system for commercial purposes as well, potentially mining resources from asteroids in space. “I think the best use of the system is by using it for a dual purpose,” Melamed said. “It can be used for extracting useful materials from asteroids and be diverted to deflect a threatening asteroid in a time of need.” For this method, material ejected from the asteroid, or possibly the Moon, would be captured by some type of orbiting spacecraft.
“That way, the system isn’t just useless for a very long time until a time in the distant future when it needs to be used,” Melamed added.
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