Experts at China’s National Space Science Center have unveiled a plan to launch a fleet of rockets into space to practice diverting an asteroid off Earth.
Their target is the asteroid Bennu – a spider-shaped body of 494 m (1,614 feet), whose orbit will bring it within 7.5 million kilometers from Earth from 2175-2199.
At this point, the space rock will be classified as potentially dangerous, as scientists have predicted that it will have a 1-in-2,700 chance of hitting Earth.
However, Chinese simulations suggest that the simultaneous impact of 23 ‘Long March 5’ rockets, each about 900 tons, could knock Bennu 5,592 miles off course.
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Experts at China’s National Space Science Center have unveiled a plan to launch a fleet of ‘Long March’ rockets into space to practice diverting an asteroid off Earth
Their target is the asteroid Bennu (pictured) – a spider-shaped body of 494 m (1,614 feet), whose orbit will bring it within 7.5 million kilometers of Earth from 2175-2199
Chinese simulations suggest that the simultaneous impact of 23 ‘Long March 5’ rockets, each about 900 tons, could knock Bennu 5,592 miles off course. This is equal to 1.4 times the radius of the earth – and can be the difference between the asteroid that sails on and slams into the earth with devastating consequences
Bennu is 1,614 feet (492 m) wide spindle-shaped asteroid.
Experts believe that the carbon-rich body was formed about 4.5 billion years ago.
Bennus’ future orbit will see it come within 7.5 million kilometers of the Earth in the period from 2175-2199.
Experts have calculated that during this period Bennu will have a cumulative 1-in-2,700 chance of colliding with Earth.
Bennu has been the focus of NASA’s OSIRIS REX mission, which returns with samples from the asteroid in September 2023.
‘Asteroid impacts pose a major threat to all life on Earth,’ wrote paper author and space scientist Mingtao Li of the National Space Science Center in Beijing.
‘Deflecting an asteroid on a collision course is crucial to mitigating this threat.’
To knock an asteroid like Bennu off its original course would require a significant amount of kinetic energy.
While the use of nuclear-powered explosions may seem like the obvious choice for such an effort, this approach will entail the risk of the target breaking into separate pieces, which may also end up in a collision course with Earth.
Dr. Li explained, however, that it will be ‘possible to defend against large asteroids with a nuclear-free technique within ten years.’
The approach proposed by the Chinese team would see multiple rockets hit the surface of Bennu at once – after spending some three years traveling from Earth to reach the asteroid.
The efficiency of each ‘deflection vessel – called a’ Total Kinetic Impactor ‘- would be improved by not differing from the rocket’s upper stage, thereby providing extra mass to carry on the impact.
According to the team, the March 5 rocket would require minimal modifications – such as the addition of maneuvering thrusters – to be reused for an asteroid deflection mission.
The long March 5 is the same rocket design that made an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere back in May this year.
Fortunately, the stray rocket vessel ended up crashing safely over the Indian Ocean, causing no damage.
‘Asteroid impacts pose a major threat to all life on Earth,’ wrote paper author and space scientist Mingtao Li of the National Space Science Center in Beijing. The image: one of the total kinetic influences that the researchers say could be used to deflect Bennu
The efficiency of each ‘deflection vessel – called an’ Overall Kinetic Impactor ‘- would be improved by not differing from the rocket’s upper stage, thereby providing extra mass to carry on the impact. The image: the impact force contained in the rocket shell
However, China is not the only power preparing to deflect asteroids that could potentially end up on a collision course with Earth.
HAMMER – short for ‘Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response’ – is a US concept study to investigate the effectiveness of using spacecraft as either a kinetic or nuclear impactor against an asteroid.
NASA simulations suggested it could take 34-53 HAMMER strikes, all launched 10 years before Bennu and Earth collided, to deflect the asteroid to another course.
Should HAMMER have a 25-year lead time, however, such a figure could be reduced to only 7-11 individual launches.
The full results of the study were published in the journal Icarus.
WHAT IS NASA’S HAMMER ASTEROID RELEASE VEHICLE?
NASA is working on a Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for the Emergency Response vehicle, called HAMMER.
The nine-meter-high 8.8-ton spacecraft has a modular design that makes it possible to function as a kinetic impact body, essentially a stroke.
It could also be used as a transport vehicle for a nuclear device.
Its possible mission is to deflect 101955 Bennu, a massive asteroid about 500 meters, more than five football fields, in diameter.
It weighs about 79 billion kg (174 billion kg), making it 1,664 times as heavy as the Titanic and orbiting the sun about 102,000 km / h.
Based on observational data, Bennu has a 1 in 2,700 chance of hitting the earth on September 25, 2135.
It is estimated that the kinetic energy at this impact corresponds to 1,200 megatons, approx. 80,000 times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb.
The preferred approach to mitigating an asteroid threat would be to deflect it by hitting a kinetic impact body into it and delivering a gentle push large enough to slow it down but not so large that the object breaks.
However, recent studies have suggested that the nuclear option may be required with larger objects such as Bennu.