Why this undergrad could save us from a comet apocalypse

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Nov 28, 2016

While most of his classmates were watching the homecoming game or marathoning reality shows, Qicheng Zhang was outside gazing at comets.

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in astronomy and astronomical events,” said the UC Santa Barbara senior and future astrophysicist. “Comets are one of the few astronomical phenomena that you can just go out … and see, night to night, moving.”

These celestial bodies that shoot through space are not literally “shooting stars,” but actually masses of ice and leftover star stuff that get their galactic glow from passing the sun. Nothing can get that close to such a massive body of burning gas without feeling the heat (and gravity). Gravitational forces from a fireball the size of a billion earths can change the course of a comet’s travels depending on how close it dares to fly. Solar radiation and wind also melt the ice, which vaporizes into that mystical-looking tail. What that may not come to mind right away if you’re mesmerized by these glowing objects streaking across the night sky is a potential Armageddon.  

Zhang’s fascination with comets ventures beyond their beauty. He spent his summer vacation interning at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and his research there sparked a paper, co-authored with his physics professor and head of the UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group Philip Lubin, that changed the light in which the scientific community may see comets if they flash too close to Earth. His paper illuminates an unprecedented way in which lasers could be used to deflect a comet who orbit brings it perilously close to our planet—and prevent us from going the way of T-Rex.


“A laser is such a narrow beam that can produce more power on the target than the Sun provides, allowing an effective defense against comet strikes,” Lubin said of the technology that may sound more like Star Wars than science. “It’s not something to worry about right away, but it is noteworthy that we now possess the technology to protect humanity against another threat, comets, which is what some people believe may have decimated the dinosaurs.”

Whether it was a comet, asteroid, or some other (literally) Earth-shattering cosmic force that obliterated remains unknown, a comet collision is one theoretical death trap that a college student obsessed with them could not ignore. Zhang felt too much anti-apocalypse attention had gone to potential methods of thwarting asteroids. While the galaxy is infested with asteroids, whose sheer number makes them more of a danger, comets are hardly out of the question when it comes to why the almighty reptiles that once roamed the earth are now museum fossils. He became laser-focused on how to use superpowered radiation beams that would work with existing solar influences to redirect the paths of these frozen projectiles and avoid impact.

No wonder NASA and Breakthrough Starshot are already starting to work this wizardry.

Zhang’s otherworldy genius shone brightly enough to get the attention of the Universities Space Research Association and won him their Thomas R. McGetchin Memorial Scholarship. His scientific breakthrough could save the world in a way that might have once been made possible only by special effects in sci-fi movies. Even with the weight of the Earth on his shoulders, he still insists he’s the same starry-eyed kid who used to stare up into the vast expanse of darkness over the California desert, fascinated by comets. 

(Via Astronomy Now)