Gravity tractor could deflect an Earth-threatening asteroid

July 29th, 2008 - 4:36 pm ICT by ANI  

London, July 29 (ANI): A new study has indicated that a gravity tractor could deflect an Earth-threatening asteroid if it was deployed when the asteroid was more than one orbit away from the potential impact.

According to a report in New Scientist, the study, carried out by NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, shows that the weak gravitational pull of a nearby spacecraft could deflect a hypothetical asteroid 140 metres across, big enough to cause regional devastation if it hit Earth.

Prior to this study, the gravity tractor deflection technique had been proven in only a conceptual way, said Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Although there were few, if any, substantive criticisms of these concepts, some of us had the feeling that the ideas were viewed as quaint but not-ready-for-prime-time. The JPL study gives it the solid engineering underpinnings that we never really doubted, but now are there for anyone to see, he added.

According to Rusty Schweickart, a former Apollo astronaut and chairman of the B612 Foundation, exactly how much of a push is needed to deflect an asteroid depends on how long before a potential impact the intervention begins, and what kind of orbit the object is going to follow in the interval.

In some cases, the asteroid will pass through a narrow keyhole in space before returning on a future orbit to hit Earth. If it misses the keyhole, which may be only a few hundred metres across, it will go on to miss Earth.

Thats where a gravity tractor alone could do the job.

The gravity tractor is a wimp, but its a precise wimp, Schweickart told New Scientist. It can make very small, precise changes in orbit, and thats what you need to avoid a keyhole, he added.

The well-known asteroid Apophis could pass through such a keyhole in 2029, leading to an impact with Earth just seven years later.

In the JPL study, the imagined asteroid is initially discovered on a direct path to impact, so a gravity tractor would be too feeble to deflect it alone. Instead, the team envisages a one-two punch.

First, a spacecraft would be crashed directly into it, similar to the Deep Impact mission that impacted a comet in 2005.

Then, a second spacecraft, the gravity tractor, would come into play.

Weighing around a tonne and hovering about 150 metres away from the asteroid, it would exert a gentle gravitational force, changing the asteroids velocity by only 0.22 microns per second each day. But over a long enough time, that could steer it away from the keyhole. (ANI)

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