MIT student says we could save the Earth from asteroids with WHAT?

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Jun 25, 2015

An asteroid's hurtling toward the planet. So what do we do? Do we fire nuclear missiles at it? Do we send a team up on a special space shuttle to drill down into it? Or do we do something you'd probably never see in a movie? According to a new theory by an MIT grad student, our best hope to save Earth from a deadly asteroid could be ... paint?

In a paper submitted to the United Nations-sponsored 2012 Move An Asteroid Technical Paper Competition, MIT aeronautics student Sung Wook Paek theorized that we could push an asteroid of its collision course by firing lots and lots of paint pellets at it.

According to Paek's plan, a spacecraft would fire two big batches of pellets filled with white paint at the asteroid to cover as much of it as possible. The force of the blast of paint pellets would alter the asteroid's course somewhat, but the really important thing is all that white. With its newly-lightened surface the asteroid would be more than twice as reflective as it was before, and all that extra solar radiation bouncing off its surface would create pressure, which would help to move it off course even more.

To illustrate his theory, Paek used the 900-foot-wide asteroid Apophis as an example. It's possible that particular asteroid will come very close to Earth in both 2029 and 2036, and it has been cited as a possible impact asteroid. According to Paek, we'd need five tons (10,000 pounds or so) of paint to cover Apophis, but even with that kind of firepower it would take an estimated 20 years to move the asteroid off its near-Earth course. So, if we want to go that route, we should probably start asking Sherwin-Williams for sponsorships right about now.

Paek also noted that the method has other applications. If we pack the pellets with aerosols instead of paint, we could "impart air drag on the incoming asteroid to slow it down," and we could also use the paint to simply tag the asteroids and make them easier to see with telescopes.

"So there are other uses for this method," he said.

Paek's work builds on another winning asteroid-moving proposal from last year in which a cloud of solid pellets would be used. Lindley Johnson, who manages NASA's Near Earth Objects Observation Program, praised Paek's theory as a new addition to a list of possible Earth-saving techniques.

"It is very important that we develop and test a few deflection techniques sufficiently so that we know we have a viable 'toolbox' of deflection capabilities to implement when we inevitably discover an asteroid on an impact trajectory," Johnson said.

So, while it would have been less cool to see Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis fly into space and play paintball with an asteroid, it does seem Paek is on to something practical.

(Via Huffington Post)