Cosmic Pinball: MIT unveils asteroid-deflecting technology

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MIT researchers have determined the best way to deal with those pesky asteroid impacts.

An asteroid will not hit the earth anytime soon—at least not as far as scientists are concerned. That said, collisions have happened before and researchers anticipate a near-miss in 2029. Better to be safe than sorry, according to the adage. This is precisely why a group of researchers at MIT have developed technology capable of thwarting an asteroid attack.

Really? No, not really.

The system does, however, formulate the best possible way to avoid a collision long before the decision becomes imperative. Led by a former MIT graduate student, Sung Wook Paek, the technology is best described as a “decision map.” Mass and relative momentum of an approaching asteroid are accounted for, along with the time until it enters a so-called “Keyhole.” The “Keyhole” refers to a gravitational field that all but guarantees an object will collide with the earth once it has been entered. 

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How It Works

The MIT-pioneered decision map essentially chooses between three options. Option one entails launching a projectile at the asteroid to alter its course. Option two involves sending a scout to measure the expected development of said asteroid, followed by a projectile. Alternative three comprises two scouts. One scout assesses and measures while the second potentially “nudges” the asteroid to deter it. 

Time is the most important variable in the model, which is based on simulations run using well-known space objects Apophis and Bennu. Much is known about these objects, including the location of their “Keyholes” with respect to earth. Here is what the tests concluded: With five or more years, the best course of action equates to sending two scouts and then a projectile. Between two and five years, the most reliable option is to send one scout followed by a projectile from earth. The bad news? With one year or less, no input seems adequate to avoid a collision.

Stranger Than Fiction

If all of this sounds stranger than fiction to you, you are not alone. Humans are obsessed with stories of killer rocks raining down from the skies and have been for a long time. A quick google search yields dozens of movies centered around asteroid-related plot lines, dating back to the 1950s. 

According to scientists, it is more likely that an asteroid unknown to us until the last minute (a la Chelyabinsk in 2013) will wreak havoc than one we are currently aware of. 

Not exactly comforting.

A Heralded Alternative

The generally accepted course of action in this scenario has historically implied sending a nuclear weapon to meet the object in question. Given the magnitude of their impact, however, nuclear weapons remain an unattractive option in the eyes of many.

Now, thanks to MIT, it may never have to come to that. 

If and when an earth-bound space projectile makes itself known, the decision map will take care of the rest. 

And really, if all else fails, we can always call Bruce Willis and his team:

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