NASA image of asteroid Bennu

NASA might end up nuking this killer asteroid

Contributed by
Mar 15, 2018

Bennu is an asteroid ironically named after the Egyptian phoenix-like deity of rebirth. The irony lies in the 1 in 2,700 chance that this 174-billion-pound flying object, which orbits the sun at a cool 63,000 mph, will come crashing to Earth on Sept. 21, 2135.

Before you say that everyone reading this will be dust by then, and only at risk of being crushed into finer particles of dust, there will still be billions of living (and terrified) humans on this planet who would rather not have to go through a potential mass extinction event.

If Bennu came for us, impact would mean a 1.15-gigaton blast of energy that would make hydrogen bombs look like party poppers. BuzzFeed News found out this is why the government now has an official plan to nuke the asteroid before it ever hurtles through Earth’s atmosphere.

Enter the Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, or HAMMER, which has the most appropriate acronym ever for this kind of situation. NASA, the National Security Administration, and two Energy Department weapons labs have brainstormed this massive asteroid deflector and destroyer. While it only exists as a design right now, it would either deflect a smaller asteroid with an 8.8-ton impactor or blast the ever-loving space dust out of a larger one with a nuclear device.

“If the asteroid is small enough, and we detect it early enough, we can do it with the impactor,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist David Dearborn told BuzzFeed News. “The impactor is not as flexible as the nuclear option when we really want to change the speed of the body in a hurry.”

Having the design for an asteroid blaster floating around doesn’t necessarily mean it will get realized in three dimensions. The best weapon we have against an asteroid is the time to figure out what to do with it, but as interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua proved recently, sometimes objects in space can seem to materialize out of nowhere. The only way to save humanity from one of these if it was zooming straight for our planet would be to give it a nuclear sendoff.

Unfortunately, making asteroids explode would be expensive even by NASA standards. The space agency remains secretive about exactly how much it would cost to make HAMMER a reality, but its OSIRIS-Rex mission, now en route to Bennu, set them back $800 million.

Just think that only a third of asteroids near Earth that are over 460 feet across are actually on our radar. While only 73 of those have been listed as having a slight chance of hitting Earth by NASA’s JPL Sentry collision monitoring system, it could still mean a lot of threats lurking out there, which is why the HAMMER design will be presented at the CD9 asteroid conference in Japan later this year.

At least our nuclear warheads are massive enough to take on enemy asteroids.

(via Buzzfeed News)