Skip to main content
Move the World.
Asteroid Impact

Lead Image © Elenarts / Adobe Stock

An asteroid impact is pretty low on the list of things that could wipe out humanity, but if a massive space rock did smash into the Earth, the fallout could be devastating — just ask the dinosaurs (oh wait, you can't).

That's why NASA is already developing various strategies to defend Earth from dangerous asteroids — and a new computer simulation tool out of MIT could ensure the experts always opt for the approach with the highest likelihood of success.

Preemptive Strike

Asteroids are small, rocky remnants of the gas and dust that formed our solar system. Think of them like the screws left over after you assemble furniture from Ikea — if instead of a desk, you were making a bunch of planets.

Our solar system contains millions of asteroids, the vast majority of which never come anywhere near the Earth. Of those that do end up in our planetary neighborhood, most either fly right on by or are so small, their impact poses no real threat.

"We’ve created a decision map which can help in prototyping a mission.”

Sung Wook PaekMIT

However, we would be in serious trouble if a large asteroid flew through a gravitational keyhole. Those are points in Earth's gravitational field that would affect the asteroid's trajectory in such a way that it would smash into the Earth the next time it flew by.

The MIT team's new research, which was published in the journal Acta Astronautica, focuses not on asteroids already barreling toward Earth — but on those headed toward these gravitational keyholes.

"People have mostly considered strategies of last-minute deflection, when the asteroid has already passed through a keyhole and is heading toward a collision with Earth," researcher Sung Wook Paek said in a news release. "I'm interested in preventing keyhole passage well before Earth impact. It's like a preemptive strike, with less mess."

A Lot to Process

To that end, Paek's team developed a computer simulation to determine the best approach for stopping an asteroid from reaching a gravitational keyhole.

The simulation takes into account several variables about an asteroid. These variables include its mass, momentum, and trajectory, as well as how far it is from a keyhole in terms of both distance and time.

From all this data, the simulation calculates the probability of success for three potential deflection strategies. The first strategy is straightforward: immediately slam a rocket or other projectile into the asteroid in an attempt to alter its trajectory.

The second strategy is to hit the asteroid with a projectile, but only after first sending a scout — a miniature spacecraft designed to explore near-earth asteroids — to gather data that could help ensure the projectile mission is a success.

The third option is to send two scouts to the asteroid prior to the projectile mission — the first would gather data, and the second would nudge the asteroid in a way that improves the likelihood that the main projectile succeeds in redirecting it.

Safe Space

The MIT team tested its simulation using a couple of asteroids whose gravitational keyholes scientists already know.

For one of those asteroids, Apophis, the third option — sending two scouts — is viable so long as the asteroid is at least five years away from reaching a gravitational keyhole. If it's only two to five years away, we'll want to skip ahead to option two. Or, we'll move straight to option one if the asteroid is poised to reach a keyhole within one to two years.

If Apophis is less than a year away from reaching a gravitational keyhole, though, then none of the options are likely to succeed.

"Even a main impactor may not be able to reach the asteroid within this timeframe," Paek said.

Of course, those three strategies aren't our only options for deflecting an asteroid. Paek's team now plans to explore ways to use their simulation tool to consider other mission variables.

"Instead of changing the size of a projectile, we may be able to change the number of launches and send up multiple smaller spacecraft to collide with an asteroid, one by one," he explained. "Or we could launch projectiles from the moon or use defunct satellites as kinetic impactors. We've created a decision map which can help in prototyping a mission."

Up Next

Public Health
Blood Plasma From Coronavirus Survivors Could Save Lives
coronavirus survivors
Public Health
Blood Plasma From Coronavirus Survivors Could Save Lives
A drug company is using the blood plasma of coronavirus survivors to develop a treatment for those still battling the disease.

A drug company is using the blood plasma of coronavirus survivors to develop a treatment for those still battling the disease.

Cyborgs
Scientists Engineered “Cyborg Grasshoppers” to Sniff out Bombs
Scientists Engineered “Cyborg Grasshoppers” to Sniff out Bombs
Cyborgs
Scientists Engineered “Cyborg Grasshoppers” to Sniff out Bombs
By implanting electrodes into the brains of grasshoppers, scientists were able to harness the insects’ sense of smell for the purpose of explosive detection.

By implanting electrodes into the brains of grasshoppers, scientists were able to harness the insects’ sense of smell for the purpose of explosive detection.

INTEL
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Watch Now
INTEL
Why Cancer Patients Should Get Genetic Sequencing
Genomic sequencing saved his live. Now he wants everyone to have access.
Watch Now

After he was diagnosed with life-threatening prostate cancer, Intel’s Bryce Olson sequenced his genome which offered clues to new treatments for his disease. While the current standard of care for cancer patients includes surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, genetic sequencing opens the door for new possibilities beyond these traditional approaches. Bryce explains his personal mission to encourage others to get their...

Intel
The Future of Cancer Research
The Future of Cancer Research
Watch Now
Intel
The Future of Cancer Research
Intel's Bryce Olson used genomic sequencing to help fight his cancer. Now he’s helping researchers use artificial intelligence to discover entirely new cancer treatments.
Watch Now

Intel employee Bryce Olson was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer. When the standard of care didn’t work, Bryce turned to genomic sequencing which allowed his doctors to identify specific genetic drivers of his disease and specific treatments and clinical trials that were a fit for his cancer. This precision medicine approach helped send his cancer into remission for several years. Now that his cancer has returned,...

Dispatches
Paralyzed Mice Walk Again After Breakthrough Treatment
Paralyzed Mice Walk Again After Breakthrough Treatment
Dispatches
Paralyzed Mice Walk Again After Breakthrough Treatment
One small step for a mouse, perhaps one giant leap for treating spinal injuries.

One small step for a mouse, perhaps one giant leap for treating spinal injuries.

Dispatches
Two Billion People Have TB. What Should We Do about It?
Two Billion People Have TB. What Should We Do about It?
Dispatches
Two Billion People Have TB. What Should We Do about It?
In the fight against TB, sometimes it's better to just get along.

In the fight against TB, sometimes it's better to just get along.

Superhuman
Can Virtual Reality Help Fight the Opioid Crisis?
Can Virtual Reality Help Fight the Opioid Crisis?
Watch Now
Superhuman
Can Virtual Reality Help Fight the Opioid Crisis?
VR has long been seen as an escape from the real world. But recently researchers have been putting an unexpected twist on that. They’re now exploring how VR could provide an escape from an unfortunate reality many face everyday: chronic pain.
Watch Now

Opioid addictions have become a dangerous side effect for many that take medications to treat chronic pain. To address this, doctors are exploring alternatives to prescriptions pain medicine. As part of this movement, Dr. Brennan Spiegel at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles has spear-headed some pretty fascinating research. He and his team are using virtual reality to reduce pain. Not only is it surprisingly effective...

The New Space Race
Why the U.S. Government Treated Satellites and Machine Guns as the Same for 15 Years
Why the U.S. Government Treated Satellites and Machine Guns as the Same for 15 Years
The New Space Race
Why the U.S. Government Treated Satellites and Machine Guns as the Same for 15 Years
Regulations forced companies that planned to sell satellites to other countries to register, in effect, as arms...
By Jeff Foust

Regulations forced companies that planned to sell satellites to other countries to register, in effect, as arms dealers.