The team of LNLL researchers expects the technique called kinetic impact or kinetic-impactor strategy, to divert the asteroid. To oversimplify the technicalities, the technique will make use of the momentum of the spacecraft and momentum provided through the production of impact crater ejecta. The combination of both momenta exceeds the escape velocity of the asteroid.
A lot happened in 2015, but one overarching prediction caused immeasurable anxiety in the hearts of many. Termed “asteroid apocalypse,” some theorists (with no authority outside the expansive realm of hatching conspiracy theories) had opined that an asteroid impact was imminent late last year.
All of that is history, and a comical one at that, seeing that the closest asteroid that could have impacted earth last year was nearly 22 times as far away as the moon.
However, the take home point was that NASA constantly monitors space for any asteroids that might be on course to impact earth. Such asteroids have a fancy name—“Potentially Hazardous Asteroids” (PHAs), and last year, only three PHAs were identified to make a possible impact in the next millennia.
You can place a verdict on what you think the odds are, but scientists are taking no chances to ensure an asteroid apocalypse never has to happen. The new approach devised by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LNLL) involves crashing a high-speed spacecraft into an asteroid headed for a collision with Earth.
For a long time, the researchers have studied the effects of the technique at LNLL by carrying out 3D simulations of the process. From research findings, it is known that certain asteroid properties would affect asteroid deflection if the technique were used. These properties include porosity, shape, strength, and rotation.
The fact that these properties may not be well constrained before an actual deflection mission is given the green light, places a substantial level of variability on the deflection outcome.
Regardless, the team identified valid patterns after simulating a range of initial conditions for target asteroids. For example, the scientists linked greater target strength to decreased momentum impulse, and added porosity of an asteroid of constant size to more effective deflections.
From their findings, the researchers are positive that the kinetic-impact strategy is one of the most mature technologies to employ if deflecting a hazardous asteroid becomes a priority. Its suitability also grows inspiringly when warning time is known well in advance and when the asteroid is not too large.
Furthermore, the study emphasizes the need of asteroid characterization research, which is crucial to constrain the different types of conditions that could be encountered at potential deflection targets. The study is published in the journal Icarus.