The ongoing debate about how best to deflect an Earth-bound space rock has taken another turnit seems a targeted nuclear explosion may just do the trick after all.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have been using the Cielo supercomputer to work on various nuclear weapons physics problems in recent months. Most are classified, but some are being shared with the public, like the model of what would happen if a one-megaton nuclear blast impacted a granular asteroid that’s detailed in the video below.
“Ultimately this one-megaton blast will disrupt all of the rocks in the rockpile of this asteroid, and if this were an Earth-crossing asteroid, would fully mitigate the hazard represented by the initial asteroid itself,” said Los Alamos scientist Bob Weaver, who designed the 3D model using the 1.35 petaflop/s supercomputer sporting 32,000 processors that was built by Cray for the U.S. Department of Energy research facility.
The asteroid in the model is based on the real-life asteroid Itokawa. In the exercise, the nuke, 50 times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped by the U.S. on Nagasaki, Japan during World War II, impacts on the long side of the 1,650-foot-long asteroid, sending out a shock wave that loosens individual rocks and then breaks up the asteroid entirely (pictured below).
Weaver and his colleagues say that the nuclear option, long a Hollywood favorite for dealing with rogue space objects with the potential to wipe out life on Earth, would be a last resort but could be our last, best option in the face of impending doom.
“If a very large, dangerous object with a diameter of one kilometer or more is discovered, the greatest force we would be able to use to divert the asteroid from its path would be a nuclear explosion,” said Los Alamos researcher Alan Harris.
Not everybody agrees that simply breaking up a dangerous near-Earth object (NEO) would save us. Some scientists worry that a nuke wouldn’t divert an incoming rock from its collision course but would merely create lots of big asteroid chunks that could prove just as devastating if they hit our planet.
With concern growing that a sizable NEO could could strike us by mid-century, scientists are trying to concoct different ways of artificially adjusting such a body’s trajectory so it misses us.
In addition to the nuclear option, methods under consideration include trying to alter an incoming NEO’s orbit with strikes from a “kinetic interceptor,” rigging it with solar sails, or even “painting” one side of the object so that solar radiation gives it a slight nudge to deflect it from hitting Earth.
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