Asteroid Impact Avoidance - Collision Avoidance Strategies

Collision Avoidance Strategies

Various collision avoidance techniques have different trade-offs with respect to metrics such as overall performance, cost, operations, and technology readiness. There are various methods for changing the course of an asteroid/comet. These can be differentiated by various types of attributes such as the type of mitigation (deflection or fragmentation), energy source (kinetic, electromagnetic, gravitational, solar/thermal, or nuclear), and approach strategy (interception, rendezvous, or remote station). Strategies fall into two basic sets: destruction and delay.

Destruction concentrates on rendering the impactor harmless by fragmenting it and scattering the fragments so that they miss the Earth or burn up in the atmosphere. This does not always solve the problem, as sufficient amounts of material hitting the Earth at high speed can be devastating even if they are not collected together in a single body. The amount of energy released by a single large collision or many small collisions is essentially the same, given the physics of kinetic and potential energy. If a large amount of energy is transmitted, it could heat the surface of the planet to an uninhabitable temperature.

Collision avoidance strategies can also be seen as either direct, or indirect. The direct methods, such as nuclear bombs or kinetic impactors, violently intercept the bolide's path. Direct methods are preferred because they are generally less costly in time and money. Their effects may be immediate, thus saving precious time. These methods might work for short-notice, or even long-notice threats, from solid objects that can be directly pushed, but probably not effective against loosely aggregated rubble piles. The indirect methods, such as gravity tractors, attaching rockets or mass drivers, laser cannon, etc., will travel to the object then take more time to change course up to 180 degrees to fly alongside, and then will also take much more time to change the asteroid's path just enough so it will miss Earth.

Many NEOs are "flying rubble piles" only loosely held together by gravity, and a deflection attempt might just break up the object without sufficiently adjusting its course. If an asteroid breaks into fragments, any fragment larger than 35 m across would not burn up in the atmosphere and itself could impact Earth. Tracking the thousands of fragments that could result from such an explosion would be a very daunting task. Many small impacts could cause greater devastation than one large impact.

Against some rubble piles, a nuclear bomb may be delivered to it and dock with it, then it could penetrate to its center, and explode sending fragments in all directions, thus reducing the amount of material reaching the Earth. The explosion can also increase the surface area of the threat enough so that more pieces will burn up harmlessly high in the atmosphere.

Delay exploits the fact that both the Earth and the impactor are in orbit. An impact occurs when both reach the same point in space at the same time, or more correctly when some point on Earth's surface intersects the impactor's orbit when the impactor arrives. Since the Earth is approximately 12,750 km in diameter and moves at approx. 30 km per second in its orbit, it travels a distance of one planetary diameter in about 425 seconds, or slightly over seven minutes. Delaying, or advancing the impactor's arrival by times of this magnitude can, depending on the exact geometry of the impact, cause it to miss the Earth. By the same token, the arrival time of the impactor must be known to this accuracy in order to forecast the impact at all, and to determine how to affect its velocity.

Read more about this topic:  Asteroid Impact Avoidance

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