Scientists at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory believe that a well-aimed nuclear weapon could actually save the world if a major asteroid were hurtling toward us, according to a report at MSNBC's Space blog.
Researches have used super-computers to model scenarios involving a 1,650-foot-long (500-meter) space rock and a one megaton nuclear weapon. Early results were surprisingly favorable.
The supercomputer, called Cielo, utilizes 32,000 processors and, in a 3-D modeling study, demonstrated that the nuclear weapon would, in the words of scientist Bob Weaver, "disrupt all of the rocks in the rockpile of this asteroid, and if this were an Earth-crossing asteroid, would fully mitigate the hazard represented by the initial asteroid itself."
Nuclear bombs would be deployed only as a last resort, Weaver stresses, if impact were imminent, which in astronomical terms is measured in months, not minutes. The explosion could also resort in dozens of smaller, but still destructive impacts, depending upon the size of the fragments created.
Other methods of changing an asteroid's direction could include a "gravity tractor," a robotic probe sent out to attach itself to the oncoming space rock and thereby change its mass and velocity, possibly directing it away from Earth's orbit. In a less elegant fashion, the same spacecraft could be slammed into the asteroid in hopes of deflecting it and sending it off in a new direction like the balls in a game of croquet.
The MSNBC article reminds us that asteroid impacts are not just an abstraction. It is believed that one space rock struck the planet with particular force 65 million years ago, supposedly ending the era of the dinosaurs.
A small comet fragment or meteorite is believed to have exploded 3 to 5 miles up in the atmosphere over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Russia on the morning of June 30, 1908. The resulting blast is estimated to have been the equivalent of 10 to 15 megatons of TNT, 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, knocking down a possible 80 million trees over a 830 square mile radius.
Raw Story was unable to reach Bruce Willis for comment at press time.
(Image of Asteroid 951 Gaspra via WikiMedia Commons)