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Stopping Killer Asteroids 627

Posted by michael
from the paging-bruce-willis dept.
Drog writes "Earth has had a few near misses with asteroids recently (although "near hits" would be more accurate). It's just a matter of time, though, before we detect one with our name on it. In this New York Times article, experts discuss the various ways that we might go about saving our planet. Remarkably, nuclear detonations are not a good option, as they would break the asteroid into many pieces and merely increase our odds of being hit. And a detonation some distance away may simply be absorbed by the asteroid with virtually no effect. Instead, say scientists who study asteroid hazards, a gentle sustained push is what's needed (slow and steady wins the race). Some of the approaches have been discussed in science fiction for years--a mass driver, an electromagnetic machine which hurls dirt from the surface, an orbiting parabolic mirror to heat up the surface and create a plume of vaporized material. All of these methods require one thing, however. Time. At least several decades warning."
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Stopping Killer Asteroids

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  • we're never going to have to worry about a metoerite .

    • I have a better idea. Let's just sacrifice Bruce Willis to our gods and hope that they protect us in return. We can move on to Ray Romano and George Clooney if it looks like they need more....
    • I thought Voltron was responsible for threats of that nature.
    • by sisukapalli1 (471175) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:12PM (#4708197)
      What about the new national security solution by Pres. Bush that would create a Multi Yield -- Asteriod Security Shield (MYASS)?

      That should take care of the problems with Asteroids...

      S
    • by cosmosis (221542) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:38PM (#4708549) Homepage
      The Solution to preventing an asteroidal impact, assuming time is scarce, is a nuclear rocket. The technology for this was already developed way back in the 1960's, and was shut down for obvious reasons. If an asteroid was going to hit us in less than a year without any prior warning, a massive campaign could get a nuclear rocket launched and into space within 6 months. I haven't done the precise astrodynamic calculations, but the factors are - mass of asteroid, time to left to impact, and specific impulse of nuclear rocket. The higher the specific impulse the less time or large the asteroid can be.

      Keep in mind that even if the asteroid was only a month away from impact and it was heading our way at 7 miles per second, that means that the asteroid would be 18.1 Millions miles away, which means that the angle of its trajectory would only have to be diverted by less than 1/1000th of a degree. A moderately size nuclear rocket could easily divert an asteroid of 1-2 miles in diameter in plenty of time to divert the disaster.

      Planet P [planetp.cc] - Liberation Through Technology.
  • So what do we do today??

    Pray. And give money and support funding to any program that maps the sky for asteroids. Cause if any are on their way (I'd say 30 years or less), well... we're just f*cked.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:06PM (#4708113)
    Nature's "reset" switch for Earth. Sometimes you just need to stop what yer doin' and reboot. 'At's what I say.
  • by DrEldarion (114072) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:07PM (#4708122)
    (although "near hits" would be more accurate)

    Gotta love George Carlin:

    Speaking of potential mishaps, here's a phrase that apparently the airlines simply made up: near miss. They say that if two planes almost collide it's a near miss. Bullshit, my friend. It's a near hit! A collision is a near miss.
    [WHAM! CRUNCH!]
    "Look, they nearly missed!"
    "Yes, but not quite."


    -- Dr. Eldarion --
    • Re:Carlin quote (Score:3, Insightful)

      by IPFreely (47576)
      OK, so what's a Far Miss?
      Or better yet, what's a Far Hit?

      I think of a near miss as a miss that was close enough to be scary. A far miss is like passing by at a safe distance.

      It sounds like you are/he is treating "Near" as "Nearly" or "Almost". I think of "Near" as close distance.

  • by dnoyeb (547705) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:07PM (#4708127) Homepage Journal
    I thought more pieces would have more surface area. More surface area would produce more friction traveling through the atmosphere. More friction would create more heat and thus be able to burn up asteroids that would otherwise not totally burn in the atmosphere.

    Is my science wrong?
    • The whole "create more heat" thing would probably be the bad part, since a large asteroid would likely heat up a relatively significant portion of the atmosphere a non-trivial amount. Might take a while to ultimately dissipate all that excess heat.
    • Your reasoning is correct as far as it goes. But say all those "little" pieces are still too big to burn up in the atmosphere. Now, instead of one big impact, you get N impacts over a wider area (where N>1). Less impacts == good, more impacts == bad (in the general case).


      Jon

      • Seems like smaller impacts that wipe out a few cities and send rather nasty tidal surges might be better than a single big hit that cracks the mantle and spells doom for the human race.

        Even better might be cracking the asteroid in several pieces so most of the mass misses the Earth.

        It seems to me that if we're going to go for the nukes, we're going to want to bring enough to do the job right. I don't want some Texas sized asteroid broken into Kansas sized chunks. I want the asteroid broken into pieces small enough that we can survive a few hit. It seems to me that you could fit quite a bit of fissionable material in the space shuttle.
    • by Ralph Wiggam (22354) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:15PM (#4708245) Homepage
      The science is right, but I think your scale is wrong. We're talking about objects measured in kilometers. The objects are WAY too big to just burn up in the atmoshere. An object that can be chopped in half and have both pieces burn up was never a real threat anyway.

      -B
    • Think about an asteroid of a significant size, something on the order of some percent points of Earth's size. Now, if you break such a beast without making sure all pieces will miss (that is, that your bomb will not only break it, but break in such a way that its resultant angular momentum will change drastically), you have just increased the chance that not one, but two or three asteroids with enough mass to destroy civilisation will hit the planet.
      • Think about an asteroid of a significant size, something on the order of some percent points of Earth's size. Now, if you break such a beast without making sure all pieces will miss (that is, that your bomb will not only break it, but break in such a way that its resultant angular momentum will change drastically), you have just increased the chance that not one, but two or three asteroids with enough mass to destroy civilisation will hit the planet.

        I've always wondered something about this line of reasoning. Everytime I see an argument against the nuclear option, there seems to be an assumption of using only one device. I wonder if it wouldn't be possible to use several devices to disperse an asteroid around our planet? For example, the first device is launched, then after a bit of a lag, say a few days, a second is launched, wash, rinse, repeate.
        My thought is that we could start by fragmenting the object. Then, using a string of devices, both slow and deflect the resultant cloud of matter. In the article they stated that using a nuclear blast near an object, but not on it, to try and push the object off course would probably fail, since the object would absorb the energy. But would this hold true if the object was fragmented? Each piece would be eaiser to move, and most likely, the "cloud", if you will, would have more surface area to be hit by the blast, assuming the same distance from the center of the explosion, more energy would be transfered to the "cloud" than would have been to the object.
        Ideally, if you have a year or so of warning, and you launch with a 1 day delay between devices, you could probably put 100 or so devices on the object before it reached the Earth. and basically set up a poor man's orion drive for the object, or resultant "cloud". What are the possible failings of this idea?

    • More pieces is bad (Score:5, Informative)

      by maggard (5579) <michael@michaelmaggard.com> on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:21PM (#4708319) Homepage Journal
      Actually it's not friction that "burns up" incoming material, it's radiated heat from the bow shock (yes, your high school science teacher over-simplified.)

      That aside unless you break up the pieces into very small bits they're gonna impact and n-medium sized craters is worse then ~1 big crater. Or, absolutely devastating some large radius is better then pretty-much devastating a number of somewhat smaller radiuses.

      By the way - the worst? Ocean impact. Then you're not just talking an air blast and punching a hole into the surface with some ejecta spraying but doing all of that while vaporizing some megatons of water - much worse on a global scale.

    • energy in = energy out. In this case, efficiency doesn't matter as the heat alone from that much stuff burning up in the atmosphere could be an issue, then there's the shockwaves in the air (may not be a problem), then there's the fact that you're not going to get every big piece, and some will be big enough to cause problems when they hit the ground and/or water, and you'll have more than one. Think shotgun.

      Pound it into dust completely? The stuff will wind up suspended in the upper atmosphere: I don't think anybody will be thinking global warming is a problem :). If the fine stuff doesn't wind up in the atmosphere, it might wind up in orbit: "Ooh, look, Earth now has pretty rings! Um... where did the sun go?"

      Mind you, I think global winter would be less of a problem than a big one hitting: gives us more time to pick up the pieces.

    • Yes, I'd rather be hit with a bail of hay than of a bullet carrying the same kenetic energy. Neither would be pleasant, but I'll take the distributed forces any day.
  • Bring it on (Score:2, Funny)

    by jmcwork (564008)
    As long as you can guarantee Tea Leoni is underneath it, I say leave it alone.
  • Stargate? (Score:5, Funny)

    by T-Kir (597145) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:08PM (#4708146) Homepage

    I'm reminded of an episode of Stargate SG1 (Failsafe) when Anubis sent an asteroid towards Earth.

    "O'Neill: I've seen this movie, it hits Paris."

  • wouldn't you have to strategically drill a hole(s), deposit the charge(s) then detonate?
  • Colonize other planets.

    It is important not that Earth will be hit by an asteroid, but that civilization, our species, as we have come to enjoy (and/or lament) will be annihilated.

    Remember the eggs in one's basket proverb?
    • It's a hell of a lot simpler to send a robot probe, or even a manned spacecraft with a small crew, into space than it is to establish sustainable colonies on another world. Colonization is all well and good, but some of the options discussed in the NYTimes article are things we can either do now, or should be able to do within a few generations. Colonization, in addition to the logistic and technical diffulties involved, has social problems. If you want a self-sustaining colony capable of perpetuating the race, you need a large population, and you need it to be economically self-sufficient. That means you can't just send scientists - you need engineers, factory workers, politicians, even telemarketers - all the things that make a modern capitalist economy work. And the only way you get people who *aren't* explorers by nature to colonize is for things to be absolutely miserable for them at home, or truly grand in the New World. No matter how bad things get on Earth, it'll be quite a while before life in a pressure dome on another planet starts to even rival the quality of life one can enjoy on Earth, let alone surpass it. I repeat: You need more than just scientists and explorers for a colony large enough to perpetuate the human race if Earth gets snuffed.
      • by brassman (112558) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @02:01PM (#4708793) Homepage
        Mod parent up!!!

        And of course, when you do get a self-sufficient colony going somewhere else, they're going to have their own agenda. Sort of like Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, or longer term, Asimov's Foundation.

        But... I offer two cliches that are none the less true:

        • Earth is humanity's cradle. Sooner or later, you have to grow up;
        • Ships are safe in harbor... but that's not what ships are for.
      • by debrain (29228) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @02:18PM (#4709021) Journal
        I disagree with your assertion that a barrier to colonization is 'social' problems, or capitalist issues, or attitude. If you build a road to Mars, people will walk it. Even if the only people that ever left were living in absolute misery, you would garner an enormous number of people. The idea of shaping a new colony is not one that comes around every day, either.

        The attitude that "it doesn't benefit us now" is the same attitude that keeps people from buying insurance. One may never need insurance, but you can rest assured that if your house burns down, it is well worth it.

        But extending that attitude to the existence of the human race, is obtuse to the point of being offensive. We have one chance, one single point of failure, one instance of probability defining the satisfaction of our continuation as a species. If we fail that dice roll, we all die. Forgive my presumption, but that warrants investigation. This dice does not have enough faces.

        Your assumptions about large population, economical self sufficiency, and capitalism are not validated. Your assertion that people will not go is not qualified (it is evident from the colonization of the Americas that people desire to go into the unknown, as refected in the popularity of Star Trek and other similar exploration entertainment). If you don't want to go, that is ok. I assure you that other people may; it is not your place to belittle their opportunities. It may be your will to undermine the will of the continuation of the species through this means, but I suggest giving it more thought first.

        You have not demonstrated that colonization is any less viable than the multi-generational solutions proposed by the NY Times, none of which solve the problem that Earth is a single point of failure.

        For some reason, I am reminded of telephone sanitation workers ...
        • "We have one chance, one single point of failure, one instance of probability defining the satisfaction of our continuation as a species."

          Well, no. We have only one planet, true, but a planet is a BIG place, it can take a *lot* of damage before it becomes uninhabitable by people. Even if a dinosaur-killer sized asteroid actually hit the planet and ruined the environment and sent us into a new and terrible ice age, we would still have huge amounts of water (later, water ice), oxygen, trace elements, metals, fissile materials (power source) available. In other words, even a post-apocalyptic Earth would have more resources and be more survivable than, say, a domed Mars colony with only very limited supplies of the above items - and it's also worth pointing out that building an airtight shelter than can filter the crap out of the surrounding air is a hell of a lot easier than building an airtight shelter than needs its own self-sufficient air supply, AND has to deal with radiation hazards from the thin Martian atmosphere (I'm assuming mars would be the first choice for a colony), AND deal with the fact that in the event of a breach, you won't have contaminants slowly leaking in - you'll have your air rushing out fast.

          The Earth is vulnerable to an extent, yes. But it's so well-suited to human life that even a terrible cataclymic asteroid impact would leave it more habitable, and a better choice for the future residence of the human race, than anyplace else in the solar system.

          "it is evident from the colonization of the Americas that people desire to go into the unknown, as refected in the popularity of Star Trek and other similar exploration entertainment"

          Well, no. People did not colonize or even explore the Americas for the joy of it - they were looking for gold, or trade routs, or native to indoctrinate and/or enslave. Their mission wasn't "to boldly go where no man has gone before", it was "To boldly go, get rich (or at least get a better life, or religious freedom), and bring glory to the Crown and god". People do NOT abandon their homes for a whimsical love of the unknown, they leave because "the grass is greener...". And their ain't no freaking grass anywhere but Earth.

          "it is not your place to belittle their opportunities. It may be your will to undermine the will of the continuation of the species through this means."
          Excuse me? I didn't mean to belittle any "opportunities" - if the opportunity should someday arise, and people decide against all logic to colonize other worlds, good for them. I wish them nothing but good. I do, however, doubt very much that this will happen, for reasons already discussed.

          "You have not demonstrated that colonization is any less viable than the multi-generational solutions proposed by the NY Times"

          I'm sorry, I should have made the point more clear - but I DID mention that the nytimes ideas use technology we either have now, or could reasonably be expected to have fairly soon. Yes, these are multigenerational solutions, but the issue with colonization isn't time. It's social issues, and to a lesser extent, technology. Building a ship that can sustain life for hundreds or thousands of passengers for months would be *hard* - and please, do not talk to me about suspended animation until it actually exists.
  • by eyefish (324893) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:10PM (#4708170)
    I was thinking, many of the options we have are merely theoretical. I'd like NASA to spend a few of my tax dollars actually *testing* out 2 or 3 of these ideas on a real asteroid to see if they really work.

    For example, will a near nuclear blast really be absorved by the meteor without it changing its course? How much of a force will it be needed to push an asteroid with rockets or the like?

    So let's test now so that when the real thing comes and we launch our savior to space, we don't find out in the last minute that it fails.

    On a side note, this shouldn't be a NASA-only effort, I think the European Space Agency and many other countries should ship in as well, as this concerns all of mankind.
    • You can't test a nuclear weapon in space - there are treaties that regulate this sort of thing, and they say space has to stay demilitarized. That means no nukes - that's one of the reasons, other than the horrible amount of radioactive pollution, that the Orion project never really took off. For better or worse, the only test we'll get is when there's actually an asteroid on the way to Earth.
      • I think considering the circunstances, every nation on Earth should sign a waiver allowing a nuclear weapon to be sent to a far-away asteroid for testing purposes.

        After all, the reason treaties banning nuclear space weapons were signed was to protect mankind, and in this particular case it so happens that protecting mankind is the reason to send a test nuclear weapon to an asteroid.
      • by PD (9577) <slashdotlinux@pdrap.org> on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:31PM (#4708465) Homepage Journal
        Good thing too. Nuclear weapons in space might someday be used to turn it into a sterile environment filled with deadly radiation which would be unsurvivable to anyone not wearing a special protective suit.
      • You can't test a nuclear weapon in space - there are treaties that regulate this sort of thing, and they say space has to stay demilitarized. That means no nukes

        I think it is more accurate to say there were treaties in place that prevented nuclear charges in space. Hasn't George Bush announced his intention to abrogate those treaties in the last year or so?

        Google to the rescue. According to this article [transnational.org] after dropping a lot of hints he made his intention to take the US out of the ABM treaty on December 31st 2001.

        Reagan's SDI proponents were asked whether their nuclear pumped X-ray lasers weren't a violation of the nukes in space portion of the ABM treaty. In an example of "spin doctoring" at its most blatant, they used to respond, "that would only be true if you take a strict interpretation of the treaty".

        Of course a bilateral treaty is not like a marraige contract. There is no higher authority to whom you can appeal if you think the other side is cheating. With a bilateral treaty, if the other party doesn't trust you, doesn't trust that you are complying with the interpretation of the treaty you both agreed to when you signed it, if they don't trust your new re-interpretation of the treaty, the treaty is over.

        And it doesn't really matter if there were a no nukes in space clause in the non-proliferation treaty. Other clauses in the non-proliferation treaty have been routinely violated. The non-proliferation treaty prohibited both "horizontal proliferation" and "vertical proliferation" . Horizontal proliferation was defined as nations which had no nuclear weapons at the time the treaty was signed acquiring their first weapons. Vertical proliferation was defined as the nations which already had nuclear weapons increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals. Of course The USA, the USSR and China all significantly increased the size of their nuclear arsenals in complete abrogation of the treaty.

        I believe the treaty also obliged the nuclear nations to give the non-nuclear nations the benefits from the peaceful applications of nuclear energy.

    • Um - lovely idea.

      However its not like asteroids are particularly convenient to get to or anything. Right now there are a few spacecraft out there photographing asteroid & asteroid-like objects with plans to impact into one to see what happens, another to dig into one and further plans to bring back some material.

      All of this is very basic science and none of it is particularly focused on how to deflect or break up an asteroid. That would come much later, decades considering the slow rate of progress in this area. The programs cost lots of money, the transit times are long, there's not much particular urgency and budgets are (relatively) small.

      As many have noted the first step is just to get an idea of what we are dealing with, take a look around, figure out what the heck these things are even made of and exactly what history our planet has with these. Once we've got some ideas of what we're dealing with comes the stage of deciding how to do so.

    • Good Idea! (Score:3, Funny)

      by pivo (11957)
      Let's test it on the moon! Wicked cool!
  • Frankly, many smaller fragments would probably be better than a large asteroid. I would like to hear the reasons why a large, thermonuclear device would not be a good idea.

    As an example, take two identical cars. On one car, drop a bowling bowl on the roof. On the other car, drop pebble with the combined weight of the bowling bowl. Now compare the damage.

    Besides, more material would burn up in the atmosphere if there was a hail of smaller rocks rather than one large rock. The surface would be greater - as simple as that.

    Any physics geeks care to give me some numbers?
    • Relatively, your example works.

      Relatively, 1000 1-meter rocks are better than 1 1-km rock.

      Actually, however, a single 1-meter rock getting through will still do a boatload of damage - it won't be a planet killer, but the damage will still be more than say, those 2 aircraft that flew into the world trade center towers.

      In order for any explosive asteroid deterrant system to work well, you still have to make sure that the asteroid will be sufficiently vaporized to be eaten up in the atmosphere. You have to guarantee that the asteroid will become something more like sand. A nuclear blast will probably not do that (especially not in space, where there's no atmosphere to propagate the blast).

      That's why so many systems rely more on controllable methods like redirection - we can guarantee those better.

    • as mentioned in one response: if that rubble that would come from it after breaking it up wasn't big pieces enough to bomb us to stone age, it wouldnt be a significant threat in the first place..

      maybe with right sized object tho..

      i'm no physics geek though.
    • by Pac (9516)
      For what you suggest to work, the asteroid must be broken in a number of smaller pieces in such a way that enough mass of each piece will burn during planet-entry to reduce it to a definite point. This point is that where the impact of all pieces combined will not be enough to cause one of the many things that would destroy most life (or just human civilisation) in the planet.

      Now, that would depend on a huge number of variables: composition of the asteroid matter, its velocity, the number of pieces you manage to divert enterely, the points of impact and, naturally, the asteroid size. This last factor may well make any breaking effort useless (a large enough asteroid will generate pieces large enough to kill us all anyway).

      As it is, I don't know if it is possible to predict the outcome of the experiment without sending Bruce Willis up there to make sure the end will be happy.
  • by krinsh (94283) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:10PM (#4708174)
    I wonder if this is something we should really be focusing time and energy on. You know, there are, at a minimum, eight other planets in this solar system that we should investigate - maybe not colonize, maybe not exploit for mineral or chemical (gas or liquid) resources; but we should look at with humans - not robots. I think we'd gain considerable real insight if we looked beyond our terrestrial sphere.

    But then again; don't we have a few major telescopes in orbit; and thousands more both professional and personal (like mine) on the surface? Shouldn't we be able to note anything on an obvious trajectory here and consider our options at that point? Maybe not; I have no experience in that sort of 'ballistics' thinking and perhaps there are far too many objects in our sky to track any that might cause us serious damage.
    • by aiabx (36440) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:15PM (#4708241)
      The earth made it this long, but the dinosaurs didn't, and neither did the trilobites, or the megatheria, or the wixwaxia... Extinctions happen, and I'd like to prevent ours if at all possible.
      -aiabx
  • Bear with me (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ekrout (139379) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:11PM (#4708177) Journal
    I may be alone on this one, but please hear me out.

    There are many things that could put an end to life here on Earth as we know it. Some of these would end life for all 6 billion of us, or for just one or two. Life is precious; never take anything for granted, as the next moment of trechery may suddenly take it away.

    I urge you all to love, listen, smile, ask questions, donate time, donate money, learn new things, and teach others new and fascinating pieces of knowledge through the beauty of education. If you do these things, you will experience great happiness and will come to realize that preventing "killer asteroids" should be at the very bottom of your To Do list.

    Peace.
    • by micromoog (206608) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:25PM (#4708379)
      And please forward this to 20 of your closest friends.
    • I may be alone on this one, but please hear me out.

      You're not alone but you realize, of course, that you are inviting all sorts of cruel replies because of the "love your fellow man" tone of your post. But I think you are exactly right. There are all sorts of threats to humanity: biological/nuclear warfare, overpopulation, destruction of environment, etc. but when it comes down to it, it's really because people tend to do what benefits themselves the most and they don't care about how it will effect others. Biological and nuclear weapons are harmless until they are actually used by one country attempting to gain control over another. Overpopulation is at the root of many problems but that's largely due to increased competition (for resources, fame, etc.). Laws designed to protect the environment are skirted by corporations looking to increase their profit margin by a percent or two. If people would take the bigger picture into account everytime they do something, the risks to our species would go down measurably. I realize that it's a hopeless goal to get everyone to "play nice" but if we could get a large number of people to "do the right thing", it would be interesting to see how strongly that changes things. Perhaps significantly, perhaps insignificantly. There is a mentality that the fate of our species will ultimately be determined by the worst elements of our society. If that is true, then we are all doomed because there are some really evil people out there. But even if we are doomed to extinction, being a decent person can reap personal rewards as well, making your time on planet Earth more enjoyable.

      It's really too bad that we can't, as a society, somehow make being a decent, caring, loving human being "cool". Ah well...

      GMD

  • by ColGraff (454761) <maron1&mindspring,com> on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:11PM (#4708179) Homepage Journal
    Frankly, what really worries me - and what the article really fails to address - is the fact that while there are a few programs going on in the Northern Hemisphere, there's not much happening with our buddies in the Southern Hemisphere - that means half the sky isn't really being covered well.

    On another note, who wants to bet that in the event we had, say, 50 years warning, the politicians would be utterly unwilling to do anything about it for at least 48 years?
    • Well, that depends. I'd say the time period for doing squat about the Large Killer Rock (tm) would be between 6 and 2 years to impact... depending on election cycles of course.
    • An observatory in Florida can see all but about %10 of the sky. (One in Equadore could see everything)

      The big problem is, no-one on this planet can see anything coming from the sun. We could easily get hit on our blind side.

      My solution is to get some freaking people on a nother planet. NOW.

      M@
  • Killer rocks. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by CFBMoo1 (157453)
    Although I'm concerned and think we should prepare for this eventuality. It doesn't bother me as much because of the environmental damage already done by Humanity on the Earth. I have dark feeling our greed and putting it off to the last minute will put us in a category below Dinosaurs cause we are intelligent and nearly able to do something about it, yet we'd rather spend our time on other issues and not worry about the big one till it's starting to heat up in the upper atmosphere.

    In thinking of this Osama is a small potatos compared to a 1 mile wide rock wiping out most if not all of Humanity. The world will end and the bug that poses for the latest IE vunerability topic image will then run /. when we're all gone. :)
  • I love this hysteria (Score:2, Informative)

    by 91degrees (207121)
    The fact is, the chances of being hit aren't that great. About 1 in 460 000 in the time we expect humanity to be on this planet. You're a lot more likely to be killed by a rocket crashing into you than you are to be killed by a meteor.

    The other thing is that this money would be better spent dealing with a collision.
  • by Uhh_Duh (125375) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:13PM (#4708209) Homepage
    Haven't we run this topic completely into the ground? I vote we deal with this when it's actually an issue. This discussion reminds me of a bunch of 13 year old geeks sitting around the RPG table talking about what they're going to do if giant robots with photon torpedos take over the planet.

    I don't mean to appear as flame bait.. but.. this topic has been discussed here [slashdot.org], here [slashdot.org], here [slashdot.org], here [slashdot.org], here [slashdot.org], here [slashdot.org], here, here [slashdot.org], here [slashdot.org], and here [slashdot.org].

    There are some useful scenarios we could be discussing. This is approximately none of them.
  • A good sized asteroid impact is my only hope!
  • Yet Again.... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by CodePyro (627236)
    We need to stop wrrying about every possible thing that can destroy this planet, sure we're advance enough to possibly change the out come of certain castrophic events but instead of changing the course of these events, our money will be better spent on trying to find new ways to help our current situations such as global hunger or AIDS or even find ways to reach beyond earth and begin colonising other planets...how long will the earth sustain us anyways...at the speed that we're using our resources and damaging the planet mix that with the population growth and u have a castraphic even that is much more likely to happen then an asteroid collision...
  • Solution (Score:2, Funny)

    by bayankaran (446245)
    Send one of those Hollywood heroes who has saved the planet a million times from asteroids, volcanoes, typhoons, bad people, communists etc.

    You can tie couple of them to a powerful rocket, point the rocket to the asteroid and press the button.
  • Associated Press: Paris, France - It has just been announced today in the capital of France: Upon learning that if any asteroids are on their way to collide with the earth in under ten years, it would cause complete genocide without the ability to do anything about it, France has unconditionally surrendered to all extraterrestrial foreign bodies. The French, so proud of their culture that they will surrender to maintain it, regardless of rule, support the decision of their government.
    Frenchman Jaques Fernoi states, "As long as I can make my cheese and drink wine freely, I welcome our new leaders in this asteroid."
    More updates as they present.
  • 30 years? 1950 DA is supposed to swing by real close (or hit) in about 878 years, and I'm seriously frightened that we won't be able to get consensus in time to blast (or nudge) it out of it's orbit.

    Go to http://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/space/04/04/lost.aste roid/ [cnn.com] for more info.

  • by Iainuki (537456) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:17PM (#4708269)
    Nuclear weapons in space act very differently from those in air. To my knowledge, there's never been a detonation in "deep" space: I believe there was a test in low Earth orbit once, but immediately after that the Outer Space treaty was signed (which banned nuclear detonations in space, among other things). The real difference is that a nuclear weapon in space discharges most of its energy in the form of radiation; because there's no air, there's no shockwave. While the radiation would wreak all sorts of havoc with electronic equipment, e.g. satellites, would it cause an asteroid to break up? I'm skeptical. Does anyone know if someone has thought about this question?
    • A nuclear weapon detonated in space produces a burst of soft x-rays (from black-body radiation). It does not produce the blast and thermal effects seen when the device is detonated in the atmosphere. The atmosphere is relatively opaque to soft x-rays. This results in a complex sequence of events, involving repeated absorption and reemission of photons, that produce the fireball, thermal radiation and shock waves.

      If you look at the films of high-altitude nuclear tests, they are rather boring in comparison to atmospheric tests. You can see an expanding shell-like cloud composed of the remnants of the nuclear device.

  • So, the planet's been around for billions of years, and it has been hit by meteors before. Question. Why are we worried about this now? Nuclear weapons have been around for just under 60 years. The Nuclear club continues to grow, and include instable countries.

    Lets deal with the threat that is more probable, and manageable, and leave worrying about asteroids to Chicken Little
  • by doru (541245) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:17PM (#4708275) Homepage
    By the title, I thought this was an "Ask Slashdot" post...
  • "It's just a matter of time, though, before we detect one with our name on it"
    Yeah, we'll probably get one within the next 100 million years. That should be enough time to prepare, don't you think?
  • "Holy fscking crap Batman, did they just say Killer Asteroids on Slashdot?"
    "Yes they did Robin, you know what that means."
    "Links to goatse! Oh the horror!"
    "Yes, and we haven't much time to lose. To the Batmobile!"
  • Chances are this [firstscience.com] is how we would first detect an asteroid withh our name on it.
  • Doesn't the term 'near miss' infact mean we were actually hit?
  • by bkontr (624500) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:22PM (#4708332) Homepage Journal
    of collisions, because eventually it WILL happen. If it happens, it happens. I probably have a beter chance of winning the lottery than people have of averting or deflecting such such a collision with asteroids. I know this may sound a little whacked, but the best way to improve mankinds chances of survival is interplanetary colonization. That way if earth gets hit you still have your colony on mars.
  • by sv0f (197289) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:23PM (#4708357)
    Remarkably, nuclear detonations are not a good option, as they would break the asteroid into many pieces and merely increase our odds of being hit.

    Clearly, the pointdexter astrophysicists who offered this opinion have never seen Armageddon.
  • Remarkably, nuclear detonations are not a good option, as they would break the asteroid into many pieces and merely increase our odds of being hit.

    If tomorrow's headline was "Football field size asteroid set to hit Earth in 3 days", you know that we would be hurling ever nuke we have at it.
  • My Plan.. (Score:2, Funny)

    by xchino (591175)
    Just cover the asteroid with the same material as they use to make Super Bouncy Balls..
  • Making Comparisons (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Cali Thalen (627449) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:26PM (#4708396) Homepage
    People seem to assume that ANY piece that hits the earth will be the end. If you break a moderate-sized asteroid into small pieces, OF COURSE some will hit. And, possibly all the little pieces that hit will burn up in the atmosphere. Of the pieces that do hit, the damage would be MUCH more tolerable.

    It all depends on the situation. If something the size of the moon were to suddenly aim itself at the earth, no amount of nukes would help. But a 1km piece of rock travelling at 25km/sec (which would probably poke a nice hole in the Earth's crust and kill us all) could be blown into 1000 pieces, 10% of which would hit the earth and take out a city block if it hit a city, I'll still vote for the nukes.

    Then again, maybe it's like choosing between being shot with a big rifle or a shotgun. There's only one way to know for sure...and I'll take a pass, thank you very much.

  • by Henry V .009 (518000) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:29PM (#4708441) Journal
    The New York Times article is kind of silly. If we ever need to move a large chunk of rock out of the way is a (relatively) short time, there is only one way to do it with current or near-future technology: Project Orion style nuclear explosions.

    You park your space ship against the rock, and set off small nuclear explosions against a plate mounted on the other side. The explosions are as small as you want, so the acceleration is as small as you want (to keep the rock from breaking up), but you can hold enough fuel (nuclear bombs) to make it last for quite some time.

    The methods suggested in the article might work if far longer time frames are available (millenia). But this is the best bet if you have to move it out of the way a little quicker than that.
    • this statement is not 100% true:

      All of these methods require one thing, however. Time. At least several decades warning.

      Time is balanced with power. We need the power to get whatever solution where it needs to be in time to make a difference. More power yields less time. It also reduces the radius at which you must operate. With more power, you can make a trajectory difference closer to the sun.

      Nuclear power in space is the best solution. Asside from proven rocket designs with higher specific impulses than chemical designs, nuclear can be used to power more exotic propulsion technologies. Where else are you going to get your mega watts? The whole effort should be co-ordinated with a push to colinize and exploit extra-terrestrial resources, and that is best accomplished with the portable power nuclear provides. More is better.

  • by caluml (551744) <slashdot@spCOWam ... minus herbivore> on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:36PM (#4708521) Homepage
    We had a guy at a place I worked at that was really worried about an asteroid hit. I got some of the people there to knock up a spoof BBC News home page, with a really big story that the end of the world was only about 36 hours away, and added a little tiny weeny DNS entry pointing at the box that was hosting the "site", and waited.

    Oh the laughter from the IT dept... ;)
  • by mmacdona86 (524915) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:36PM (#4708523)
    Although mass extinction asteroids are quite rare, civilization-enders are somewhat more common, and ones nasty enough to ruin your whole day if they hit the wrong place (10 megatons) may occur as often as once a century (although more recent estimates put the frequency lower). We'd probably have a lot or warning on the mass extinction ones, but it would be nice to know about and be able to deflect or destroy the much smaller ones, too. So we need an improving capability to detect near earth objects, and we need to develop a range of responses for detected threats--slow and steady methods for big asteroids where we have plenty of warning, but also a quick-launch nuclear option for when we spy that 50-meter rock headed for the eastern seaboard.
  • by Roosey (465478) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:41PM (#4708582)
    NASA has a pretty good website [nasa.gov] that talks about "near-earth objects" (comets/asteroids with orbits that bring them close to earth). They even have a page detailing the current impact risks [nasa.gov].

    Fortunately, only one of them is meriting significant attention. I guess we're safe for a little while then.
  • KISS (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sunking2 (521698) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:48PM (#4708654)
    Come on people, it's obvious that the only real workable solution in the forseable future is nukes. Of course the tricky part is detonation at the appropriate time. Afterall, we're talking about a closure rate that is incredible (100k+ km/hr?).

    Those who claim that the smaller pieces will be just as destructive as the whole are stopping the scenario short. You don't just shoot and hit with one or more at the same time. Over some amount of time you continously hit it with nukes, breaking the smaller pieces into still smaller until the pieces are either too small to do massive damage or blow out of our path.

    In my opinion, all of these exotic solutions are a waste of time and money. Hell, at this point even the nuke solution isn't very feasible and considering the chances of being hit not a very good way to spend money.
  • by Cylix (55374) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:50PM (#4708677) Homepage Journal

    I've recently applied for patents on various technologies to eliminate or deviate asteroids on an intercept course with Earth.

    If anyone should attempt to use those devices to save the Earth, I will promptly send a horde of evil barbarian lawyers with a cease and desist order.

    You can't save your punny planet now... I've used your own vices against you!

    My minions at the patent office have served me well on this day.

    cylix,
    The Lord of Evil and Terror
  • by Greedo (304385) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @01:58PM (#4708768) Homepage Journal
    I just read the article (it's fun, you should all try it sometime), and one of the ideas that's being touted as a good alternative to nuking the asteriod is to basically paint one side of it.

    The difference in energy absorbtion/radiation on the two sides of the 'roid could be enough to produce a bit of a push and take it out of harms way.

    Now, what they failed to mention in the article, which I think pretty much sends this idea to the dumpster is: what if the asteriod is rotating? That would cancel out any pushing (unless you paint one of the "poles", I suppose, but who says that's the side you "want" to paint?). Or, at the least, it would push it in unpredictable ways, which isn't a good idea.
    • The Yarkovsky effect (Score:3, Interesting)

      by kindbud (90044)
      The effect you are thinking of is called the Yarkovsky effect. The asteroid must rotate for it to come about. What happens is that the afternoon side of the asteroid, having been exposed to the sun longer, is warmer than the morning side and so it radiates more energy, mostly infrared, into space than the morning side. Obviously, the asteroid must rotate for there to be a morning side and a afternoon side.

      How this small net force affects the asteroid's orbit depends on the orientation and direction of the asteroid's spin axis. From this month's Astronomy magazine: [astronomy.com] If the spin goes one way, Yarkovsky thrust adds to the orbital speed and the asteroid moves outward, away from the sun. If the asteroid rotates the other way, Yarkovsky thrust slows the asteroid's orbital velocity, and it draws closer to the sun.

      "Painting" the asteroid with a material to alter its absorption and re-radiation of solar energy is very likely to be the most cost-effective method for altering an asteroid's orbit. It may even be the most practical method, assuming that we have enough time to allow the small change in thrust to alter the orbit enough to cause a miss.

      There is an asteroid that is a very likely candidate for this treatment. 1950 DA was discovered and lost over 50 years ago, but was recovered on Dec 31, 2000, and was recognized as the long lost asteroid soon afterwards. With a 50-year basline to work with, its orbit was found to be in 11 to 5 resonance with Earth, which has the effect of making predictions reliable out to several hundred years. In the year 2641, the resonance will begin to decompose, sending the asteroid into a more chaotic phase of its orbital evolution. But the reliability holds long enough for scientists to recognize that there is a 1 in 300 chance of 1950 DA striking the Earth in the year 2880. This is the highest chance of collision ever estimated for any asteroid, and due to the resonance effects, it is considered very reliable.

      So sometime during the next 900 years or so, we will probably have to decide that an attempt to alter its orbit is necessary. The sooner we act, the more likely we will succeed. 1950 DA is about 1.1 km in diameter, which would directly destroy an area the size of Wisconsin upon impact, and cause widespread devastation over a continent-wide area. But as little as a few tons of white chalk spread over one hemisphere could alter the Yarkovsky effect enough to change its orbit sufficiently over the next few centuries to complete avert any chance of impact.
  • Arthur C. Clarke... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Verteiron (224042) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @02:03PM (#4708812) Homepage
    ... has once again predicted the future. In The Hammer of God, he laid out an entire scenario for just this "gentle push" method.
  • by The Dobber (576407) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @02:17PM (#4709011)
    Announce that the asteroid has decided to pursue an Open Source solution to its software needs. The mass migration of Linux Hippies to said asteroid should be enough to alter its trajectory.

    If an additional course corrections are required, announce one of the following:

    1) A security hole has been found in IE
    2) Ellen Fiess will make another Apple commercial
    3) Microsoft buys the rights to Ogg Forbis

    The resulting explusion of hot air should be sufficent.

  • A different idea (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DohDamit (549317) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @02:24PM (#4709089) Homepage Journal
    Rather than pushing it to the side or destroying it, couldn't we just speed it up, so it passes through the intersection point BEFORE earth gets there? Physicist replies are welcome, all others please stand aside for the people with knowledge.
  • by bobdotorg (598873) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @02:59PM (#4709422)
    The author conveniently omitted this
    1979 technology [klov.com] that has been safely used to defend against both asteroids and alien vessels for 23 years.
  • by msheppard (150231) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @04:32PM (#4710262) Homepage Journal
    There is a chance that something will happen to the earth that will kill everyone on it. Asteroid/War/Biological being the prime candidates. There is nothing we can do to reduce the probability to zero.

    What we CAN do is get a self sustaining colony on another planet. I wish we could come up with a way to convince more people of this, and impress the implications of not doing it.

    I would like to see all religious activity funneled into the work needed to make this off-earth colony happen. It's not that I think religion is bad, I just think it is so much more important to preserve our species than to worship a possible creator/creators of it.

    Instead of "thou shall not work on the Sabbath" we should have "thou shall work on off-earth colonization on the Sabbath." If the whole of humanity dedicated it's resources to making this happen, it would happen.

    M@

  • by Kaz Riprock (590115) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @06:03PM (#4710956)

    It's very simple. We need a ship. A ship the shape of a triangle. This ship should be of simple control. Forward movement and rotation only! A single gun capable of halving (on occasion trifurcating) any size asteroid will be mounted on the front. When it has halved the pieces to a significantly small size, they will disappear upon further assault. This ship will also be fitted with a shielding system. Pulling down on the joystick or using a separate button system should activate a circular shield capable of withstanding a certain period of collision with objects, regardless of frequency. In future revisions of this vehicle, we will include a hyperwarp feature to jump out of harms way (unfortunately, technology will not allow us to determine the point of reentry, making this a daunting choice for the pilot).

    Finally, be sure to look out for ellusive UFOs with hostile aliens ready to destroy our ship (regardless of its peaceful intentions of saving our planet).

    I distinctly remember training many hours on the simulator for this solution not twenty years ago. I don't know why we're worried about this problem seeing as we already have the solution.
  • by reallocate (142797) on Tuesday November 19, 2002 @07:50PM (#4711739)
    The American space program has, literally, been going in circles for the last 30 years. It desperately needs someplace to go. Now, it looks like NASA is going to keep the shuttle flying for another decade or so, and pull out the old DynaSoar blueprints for a re-do. And where will it go? Well, around in circles for a few days when it ferries new crew members up to the space station.

    But, building the capability to send people to investigate and deal with an asteriod or comet that has Earth in its sights would give NASA a place to go. If we don't have the courage to develop an interplanetary capability to ward off armageddon, maybe we don't deserve to survive.

Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon compounds. Biochemistry is the study of carbon compounds that crawl. -- Mike Adams

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