- Researchers have proposed using a tether system to pull potentially hazardous asteroids off of their trajectories.
- For decades, researchers have proposed ways to protect Earth from asteroid impacts.
- In 2022, NASA's DART mission will test one such method: using a kinetic impactor to push a small asteroid off course.
Around the world, astronomers are scanning the skies for potentially hazardous asteroids that could come barreling toward Earth in the coming years, decades, and centuries. No pressure or anything.
Astronomers have proposed some wild ways to knock these asteroids off course. Do we nuke it? Slam a spacecraft into it? NASA is invested, too. The agency's DART mission, which launches next year, will actually test out the kinetic impactor design on the tiny moonlet asteroid Didymoon (the 10th best confirmed moon in our solar system).
But it's still a risky move. Slamming into an asteroid could potentially break it apart and create a wave of debris that could then pummel our planet.
Now, researchers have proposed a wild alternative to smashing an incoming asteroid: wrangle it with a cosmic lasso.
"The methodology aims to transfer a [potentially hazardous asteroid] to a new safer orbit through the displacement of the center of mass," the researchers, led by Flaviane Venditti of NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) and Planetary Radar Department at Arecibo Observatory and the University of Central Florida, write in their paper, which appears in The European Physical Journal. "Thus, no unwanted consequences related to fragmentation would happen after the deflection."
To test this theory, the scientists ran a series of computer simulations using the asteroid Bennu as their target. The rocky body is currently the subject of a sample return mission. Early this fall, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will scoop regolith from the asteroid's surface and return home.
In their simulations, Venditti and her colleagues factored in the mass of the smaller asteroid, three different lengths of the tether (621 miles-long, 1242 miles long and 1864 miles long) and then the location where the tethers would be attached.
So what does it take to potentially wrangle a potentially hazardous asteroid out of the way? "The results suggest that, for a faster deflection, longer tethers and a more massive asteroid attached to the PHA would be more effective," the scientists write. In other words, go big or go home.
The best part, the researchers argue, is that tugging the potentially hazardous asteroid off course dramatically lowers the risk of inadvertently sending asteroid fragments zooming toward Earth.
Notably, the researchers didn't actually factor how to catch and transport the small asteroid into their study, which seems like it would be an incredibly challenging task in itself. This factors into one of the plan's greatest challenges: It would take a long time to orchestrate something like this. Astronomers would have to know it was coming far in advance.
The researchers also suggested the tether system could be handy for other outer space uses, like asteroid mining. This isn't the first time scientists have suggested using tethers to solve big questions in space. Space elevator, anyone?
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