Some might think it’s paranoid to think about an asteroid hitting Earth and wiping us out. But the history of life on Earth shows at least 5 major extinctions. And at least once, about 65 million years ago, that extinction was caused by an asteroid.
Preparing for an asteroid strike, or rather preparing to prevent one, is rational thinking at its finest. Especially now that we can see all the Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) out there. The chances of any single asteroid striking Earth may be small, but collectively, with over 15,000 NEAs catalogued by NASA, it may be only a matter of time until one comes for us. In fact, space rocks strike Earth every day, but it’s the ones large enough to do serious damage that concern NASA.
NASA has been thinking about the potential for an asteroid strike on Earth for a long time. They even have an office dedicated to it. It’s called the Office of Planetary Defense, and minds there have been putting a lot of thought into detecting hazardous asteroids, and deflecting or destroying any that pose a threat to Earth.
One of NASA’s proposals for dealing with an incoming asteroid is getting a lot of attention right now. It’s called the Hyper-velocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, or HAMMER. HAMMER is just a concept right now, but it’s worth talking about. It involves the use of a nuclear weapon to destroy any asteroid heading our way.
The use of a nuclear weapon to destroy or deflect an asteroid seems a little risky at first glance. They’re really a weapon of last resort here on Earth, because of their potential to wreck the biosphere. But out in space, none of that applies. If scientists sound a little glib when talking about HAMMER, the reality is they’re not. It makes perfect sense. In fact, it may be the only sensible use for a nuclear weapon.
The idea behind HAMMER is pretty simple; it’s a spacecraft with an 8.8 ton tip, either a nuclear weapon of just 8.8 tons of mass. Once we detect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, we use space-based and ground-based systems to ascertain its size. If its small enough, then HAMMER will not require the nuclear option. Just striking a small asteroid with sufficient mass will divert it away from Earth.
If the incoming asteroid is larger, or if we don’t detect it early enough, then the nuclear option is chosen. HAMMER would be launched with an atomic warhead on it, and the incoming offender would be destroyed. Sounds simple enough, right?
But it’s a little more complicated than that.
We’ve gotten a lot better at detecting NEOs, PHO, and NEAs lately. We have telescopes and projects dedicated to cataloguing them, like Pan-STARRS and . And in the next few years, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will come online, boosting our detection capabilities even further.
One of NASA’s proposals for dealing with an incoming asteroid is getting a lot of attention right now. It’s called the Hyper-velocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, or HAMMER. HAMMER
Mention Russians too, also, “In a way, these methods of destroying or deflecting menacing asteroids are really just part of our new relationship with these chunks of rock.” Talk mining, bringing into orbit, etc.
It’s not just extinctions that we need to worry about. Asteroids also have the potential to cause massive climate change, disrupt our geopolitical order, and generally de-stabilize everything going on down here on Earth.
Surprising visitors like Oumuamua also pose a threat.
Include some asteroid definitions? NEO, NEA, PHO
Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS)
International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN)
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