Avoiding armageddon: U.S. reveals plans to counter killer asteroids

The U.S. government released a new report detailing some of the efforts underway to prepare for and respond to a catastrophe caused by a “near-Earth object” (NEO), an asteroid or comet that impacts the Earth.  Included in the report are several strategies the government could take to avert such a collision, which has the potential for immense widespread destruction.

Such an impact is highly unlikely, given the vastness of space and the relatively tiny size of the NEOs in our solar system. “Fortunately, this type of destructive event is extremely rare,” White House official Aaron Miles told Bloomberg.

The report breaks the NEOs into five general categories by the potential of impact devastation, ranging from “none” (the shooting stars we see in the sky all the time) to “global” (the event that led to the end of the dinosaurs).

Even relatively small objects can cause extensive devastation because they’re traveling at such high speeds. In 1908, for example, an object about 150 feet across exploded over Tunguska, Russia, leveling more than 800 square miles of forest. The report estimates that such an event over New York City would result in millions of casualties.

Luckily, we’re getting a lot better at tracking the most dangerous objects. In conjunction with the International Asteroid Warning Network and the United Nations, NASA has documented 96 percent of the largest “planet-killers,” according to Lindley Johnson, a planetary defense officer for NASA. The agency is currently tracking some 18,310 NEOs, with 8,000 of those in the “global” category.

On the other hand, there is a chance that a rogue object could suddenly appear from interstellar space, giving us mere months to prepare. That was the case with ‘Oumuamua,’ a strange cigar-shaped asteroid that was apparently just a visitor that cruised quickly into our solar system, slingshotted around the sun at 196,000 miles per hour, and departed.

The report encourages preliminary planning and designs for three different “NEO deflection” missions:

  • Kinetic impact: Just smashing a spacecraft into the asteroid may be enough to sufficiently deflect its trajectory, especially if the object was years away from impact.
  • Gravity tractor: Landing and attaching a heavy spacecraft on the object would have a similar effect to a barnacle on a ship’s hull, altering the path due to the increased mass.
  • Nuclear explosion: While obviously the tactic Bruce Willis would approve of, the reality is more nuanced. A nuclear blast would reduce the mass of the object, allowing its trajectory to be altered more easily by other methods. The report emphasizes that no nuclear explosive tests in space are planned or necessary, and such a scenario would only be undertaken for a large object that is more than a decade from impact.

In the short term, the administration wants to increase funding for missions like the NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), which will test some of these theories by crashing a spacecraft into the orbiting moonlet of a dual asteroid.

Product Review

Airselfie 2 may as well be a GoPro stapled to a drunk hummingbird

On paper, the Airselfie 2 is marketed as flying photographer that fits in your pocket and snaps selfies from the sky. Unfortunately it’s more like a HandiCam controlled by a swarm of intoxicated bumblebees
Photography

Get your Sagan on with 60 awe-inspiring photos of the final frontier

Few things instill a sense of wonder quite like the final frontier. The best space photos show off the beauty of Earth, our solar system, and the far corners of the universe. Here are our current favorites.
Emerging Tech

These 11 catastrophic rocket crashes highlight just how difficult space travel is

Space is a tricky business. Failure is common and often results in an explosion, a fiery crash and sometimes the loss of lives. Our video compilation of the worst rocket crashes shows just how catastrophic a mission failure can be.
Mobile

How to remove Android malware from your phone or tablet

Did you download an infected app? You need to remove Android malware as soon as possible. Here's the process to uninstall, along with some recommendations on how to safeguard your phone.
Emerging Tech

Cigar-shaped comet may actually be an alien probe, Harvard scientists suggest

The story of the cigar-shaped comet called 'Oumuamua just got a little bit weirder now that researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics released a study claiming the outer-space object may be an alien probe.
Deals

Cyber Monday 2018: When it takes place and where to find the best deals

Cyber Monday is still a ways off, but it's never too early to start planning ahead. With so many different deals to choose from during one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year, going in with a little know-how makes all the…
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: 1-handed drone control, a pot that stirs itself

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

‘Bionic mushroom’ can generate electricity without using fossil fuels

Researchers have come up with a way to produce electricity without fossil fuels using mushrooms covered with bacteria. The mushroom provides a safe environment for special cyanobacteria that generate electricity when light is shone on them.
Emerging Tech

Curiosity rover active and drilling again after computer issue

The Curiosity rover has succeeded in drilling a hole into the tough bedrock that previously defeated it, allowing imaging and collection of samples. The rover had been incapacitated for a few weeks due to problems with its computer.
Emerging Tech

Astronomers discover two rogue planets that do not orbit a star

Astronomers have identified two rogue planets in our galaxy which do not orbit around a star. Unlike the vast majority of discovered planets, these rogue planets drift through space alone with no sun to shine on them.
Emerging Tech

Pairs of supermassive black holes spotted in colliding galaxies

Astronomers have discovered several pairs of supermassive black holes in galaxies that are colliding with each other. These black holes will spiral closer and closer together and eventually merge into one supermassive black hole.
Emerging Tech

Quantum-based accelerometer can locate objects without GPS

Researchers have created a quantum "compass" that allows navigation without satellites. The instrument, technically called a standalone quantum accelerometer, is small enough to be transportable and has a very high level of accuracy.
Emerging Tech

Ancient continent discovered beneath the ice of Antarctica

Antarctica could be hiding the remains of a long-lost continent. Scientists created a 3D map of the crust beneath the Antarctic ice sheet which shows a similarity to the crust in Australia and India, suggesting they used to be joined.
Emerging Tech

Rocket Lab steps into spotlight with its first commercial rocket launch

Rocket Lab has deployed multiple small satellites into orbit in its first notable commercial launch. Its New Zealand-born boss said the success means "rapid and reliable access to space is now a reality for small satellites."