Deflecting an asteroid such as Bennu, which has a small chance of hitting Earth in about a century and a half, could require multiple small impacts from some sort of massive human-made deflection device, according to experts.
Scientists in California have been firing projectiles at meteorites to simulate the best methods of altering the course of an asteroid so that it wouldn’t hit Earth.
According to the results so far, an asteroid like Bennu that is rich in carbon could need several small bumps to charge its course.
Bennu, which is about a third of a mile wide, has a slightly greater chance of hitting Earth than previously thought, NASA revealed earlier this month.
The space agency upgraded the risk of Bennu impacting Earth at some point over the next 300 years to one in 1,750.
Bennu also has a one-in-2,700 chance of hitting Earth on the afternoon of September 24, 2182, according to the NASA study.
Scientists have been seriously considering how to stop an asteroid from ever hitting Earth since the 1960s, but previous approaches have generally involved theories on how to blow the cosmic object into thousands of pieces.
The problem with this is these pieces could potentially zoom towards Earth and present almost as dangerous and humanity-threatening an issue as the original asteroid.
A more recent approach, called kinetic impact deflection (KID), involves firing something into space that more gently bumps the asteroid off course, away from Earth, while keeping it intact.
Recent KID efforts were outlined at the 84th annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society held in Chicago this month and led by Dr George Flynn, a physicist at State University of New York, Plattsburgh.
‘You might have to use multiple impacts,’ Dr Flynn said in conversation with The New York Times. ‘It [Bennu] may barely miss, but barely missing is enough.’
Researchers have been working at NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range, built in the 1960s during the Apollo era and based at Moffett Federal Airfield in California’s Silicon Valley, for the recent KID experiments.
They fired small, spherical aluminum projectiles at meteorites suspended by pieces of nylon string.
The team used 32 meteorites – which are fragments of asteroids that have fallen to Earth from space – that were mostly purchased from private dealers.
The tests have allowed them to work out at what point momentum from a human-made object fired towards an asteroid turns it into thousands of fragments, rather than knocking it off course as desired.
‘If you break it into pieces, some of those pieces may still be on a collision course with Earth,’ Dr Flynn said.
Carbonaceous chondrite (C-type) asteroids, such as Bennu, are the most common in the solar system.
They are darker than other asteroids due to the presence of carbon and are some of the most ancient objects in the solar system – dating back to its birth.
According to the findings from experiments at AVGR, the type of asteroid being targeted (and how much carbon it has in it) may dictate how much momentum would be directed at it from any human-made KID device.
From the experiments, the researchers found C-type meteorites could withstand only about one-sixth of the momentum that the other chondrites could withstand before shattering.
‘[C-type] asteroids are much more difficult to deflect without disruption than ordinary chondrite asteroids,’ the experts concluded.
‘These results indicate multiple successive impacts may be required to deflect rather than disrupt asteroids, particularly carbonaceous asteroids.’
Therefore, around 160 years in the future – when Bennu is most likely to collide with Earth, according to NASA – a KID device would have to give it a series of gentle nudges to prevent it from breaking up and sending dangerous splinter fragments flying towards Earth.
NASA’s recent study about Bennu, published in the journal Icarus, did point out there is more than a 99.9 per cent probability Bennu will not smash into Earth over the next three centuries.
‘Although the chances of it hitting Earth are very low, Bennu remains one of the two most hazardous known asteroids in our solar system, along with another asteroid called 1950 DA,’ NASA said in a statement.