LIVERMORE (CBS SF) – It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood sci-fi thriller, but researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National lab have joined an Air Force team of technologists to test whether a nuclear explosion could be used to deflect an earth-threatening asteroid.
Whether it’s Bruce Willis and his crew of oil rigs taking an asteroid as it approaches Earth in ‘Armageddon’ or Tia Leoni and her father awaiting a massive tidal wave from an asteroid strike in ‘Deep Impact’, Hollywood has been fascinated by threat from space.
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Lansing Horan IV, a team member, said the research was focused on neutron radiation from a nuclear detonation, as neutrons can be more penetrating than X-rays.
“This means that a neutron yield can potentially heat larger amounts of asteroid surface material and therefore be more effective at deflecting asteroids than an X-ray yield,”
Horan said there are two basic options for defeating an asteroid: perturbation or deflection.
Interference is the process of giving so much energy to the asteroid that it is robustly crushed into many fragments moving at extreme speeds.
“Previous work showed that more than 99.5 percent of the original asteroid mass would miss Earth,” he said. “This path of disruption is likely to be considered if the warning time before an asteroid impact is short and / or the asteroid is relatively small.”
Bending is the gentler approach that involves giving a smaller amount of energy to the asteroid, keeping the object intact and pushing it on a slightly different trajectory at a slightly changing speed.
“Over time, with many years before impact, even a small speed change could add a ground-missing distance,” Horan said. Bending can generally be preferred as the safer and more ‘elegant’ option if we have sufficient warning time to adopt this kind of reaction. Therefore, our work focused on deflection. ”
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Horan said the work was a small step forward for nuclear deflection simulations.
“An ultimate goal would be to determine the optimal neutron energy spectrum, the scattering of neutron energy effects that deposit their energy in the most ideal way to maximize the resulting velocity change or deflection,” he said.
Horan said the research showed that precision and accuracy in data on energy disposal is important.
“If the energy deposition input is wrong, we should not have much confidence in the asteroid deflection output,” he said. “We now know that the energy deposition profile is most important for large yields that will be used to deflect large asteroids.”
He said that if there were to be a plan to mitigate a large incoming asteroid, the spatial profile of the energy position should be taken into account for the correct model of the expected asteroid velocity change.
“On the other hand, energy coupling efficiency is always important to consider, even for low yields against small asteroids,” he said. “We found that the size of the energy deposit is the factor that most strongly predicts the overall deflection of asteroids, affecting the final velocity change more than the spatial distribution does.”
In order to plan an asteroid-breaking mission, it is necessary to take these energy parameters into account in order to have correct simulations and expectations.
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“It is important that we investigate and understand all asteroid mitigation technologies to maximize the tools in our toolkit,” Horan said. “In certain scenarios, the use of a nuclear device to deflect an asteroid would bring several advantages over non-nuclear alternatives. In fact, if the warning time is short and / or the incident asteroid is large, a nuclear explosive may be our only practical option for deflection and / or disturbance. ”