Aerospace engineer thinks up way of deflecting asteroids

April 17th, 2009 - 2:20 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, April 17 (IANS) David French may be the guy who saves the world from an asteroid when it comes hurtling down from space.
French, a doctoral candidate in aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU), has thought up a way to divert asteroids and other threatening objects from hitting the earth.

Just by attaching a long tether and ballast to the incoming object “you change the object’s centre of mass, effectively changing the object’s orbit and allowing it to pass by the earth, rather than impacting it”, French explained.

US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Near Earth Object Program has identified more than 1,000 “potentially hazardous asteroids” and they are finding more all the time.

“While none of these objects is currently projected to hit the earth in the near future, slight changes in the orbits of these bodies, which could be caused by the gravitational pull of other objects, push from the solar wind, or some other effect could cause an intersection,” said French.

So, French and NCSU associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Andre Mazzoleni studied whether an asteroid-tether-ballast system could effectively alter the motion of an asteroid to ensure it missed hitting earth. The answer? Yes.

“It’s hard to imagine the scale of both the problem and the potential solutions,” French said. “The earth has been hit by objects from space many times before, so we know how bad the effects could be.

“For example, about 65 million years ago, a very large asteroid is thought to have hit the earth in the southern Gulf of Mexico, wiping out the dinosaurs and in 1907, a very small airburst of a comet over Siberia flattened a forest over an area equal in size to New York city. The scale of our solution is similarly hard to imagine,” French was quoted as saying in a NCSU release.

“Using a tether somewhere between 1,000 km to 100,000 km to divert an asteroid sounds extreme but compare it to other schemes. They are all pretty far out. Other schemes include a call for painting the asteroids in order to alter how light may influence their orbit, a plan that would guide a second asteroid into the threatening one, and of course there are nukes,” he said.

“Nuclear weapons are an intriguing possibility, but have considerable political and technical obstacles. Would the rest of the world trust us to nuke an asteroid? Would we trust anyone else? And would the asteroid break into multiple asteroids, giving us more problems to solve?” French asked.

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