Imagine a giant asteroid is hurtling toward the Earth. The killer space rock has managed to avoid detection until a few days or weeks before impact, and our options for saving ourselves are running low. What do we do?
According to some researchers, our best option is to nuke it.
There are tens of thousands of asteroids that could potentially collide with the Earth. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is in charge of cataloging all of these potential threats and developing plans to protect ourselves from them. For many of these asteroids, we’d be able to see them coming months or years before they actually impact, and for them, the best option is just to hit the asteroid with something non-nuclear. A small directional impact would divert the asteroid enough to cause it to miss us-assuming we hit it early enough.
But for last-minute asteroid deflection, the only real option is a nuke. This was the conclusion presented by researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union last week.
It’s not unprecedented for a killer asteroid to sneak up on us. Just a few months ago, astronomers spotted an asteroid just a few hours before it narrowly missed us. It’s not out of the question that that could happen again, and next time we might not be so lucky. With only a few hours of warning, we might need to use a nuke.
According to the scientists, nukes are pretty much ideal for asteroid redirection. In addition to the large explosion, nukes release a lot of high-energy radiation, which causes the surface of the asteroid to vaporize. This vapor creates thrust, which further propels the asteroid away from the Earth.
Of course, launching nukes isn’t something that NASA can just do, so there are a lot of conversations that need to happen in order to put this plan in motion. But this is a first step toward a nuclear-armed planetary defense force protecting all of us from killer asteroids.