A space-based laser system proposed to NASA by University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) researchers could be a cost-effective way to nudge small asteroids away from a collision course with Earth.
With the February meteor explosion in Russia heightening U.S. government interest in how asteroid collisions with Earth can be prevented, the UAH scientists say using their system against smaller asteroids will provide practical scientific data needed to scale it up to defend against very large asteroids.
The bus-sized meteor that exploded at Chelyabinsk, Russia, is a small object in comparison to others in space. It still left a plume of dust with hundreds of tons of material in it in Earth’s atmosphere for three months.
The system the UAH scientists propose could move a meteor of that size away, said Dr. Richard Fork, an electrical and computer engineering professor at UAH who is the principal investigator for the Laser Science and Engineering Laboratory. A recent paper on their method is “Mode-locked Lasers Applied to Deflecting a Near Earth Object on Collision Course with Earth”; Richard Fork, Spencer Cole, Luke Burgess, Grant Bergstue; arXiv:1309.3238 (physics.space-ph).
Our concept is to go out after the little guys and then as we learn more, we can take on the big guys,” said Dr. Fork. “As far as we’re concerned, we have identified a technically calculable and optimally efficient means of deflecting small asteroids of the Chelyabinsk class. This method can be explored, quantitatively tested and verified in the very near future and then scaled to address larger asteroids and, possibly, eventually even comets.”
The UAH system could be delivered to space to meet a detected threatening object on relatively short notice using a system requiring one “mother” spacecraft relatively near the asteroid and a configuration of multiple microspacecraft more closely orbiting the asteroid. “The amount of average power to be delivered to the asteroid as coherent laser light can be comparable to the power, 10 kilowatts, supplied by the solar system to the currently existing Dawn spacecraft,” Dr. Fork said. “We see one of the most demanding technical tasks as developing the optimally efficient mode-locked laser and optical system required to apply the deflecting force.”
The laser-equipped spacecraft orbiting within a few kilometers of the asteroid would send trains of ultrashort optical pulses to the reflecting optical systems on the micro-spacecraft directly orbiting the asteroid. The optical systems on the microspacecraft are designed in turn to redirect and focus specifically designed trains of ultra-short duration optical pulses simultaneously on multiple locations on the asteroid.
A computer based system managing the deflection process includes a capability to locate small areas on the asteroid that are locally flat, optimally located and which also have surface normals oriented for efficient generation of the net deflecting thrust. The ultra-short pulses from the lasers will superheat the asteroid in the illuminated spots. That causes discharge of plumes of ejecta that will push the asteroid in a direction opposite to that of the ejected material.
“We propose to focus multiple pulses simultaneously on at least three specifically chosen small areas for each impulsive event, each of about 1 millimeter diameter,” Dr. Fork said. “We propose to use a carefully balanced thrust delivered so as to push the asteroid in an optimally efficient manner. We can both choose where the asteroid will go and also verify, after an adequate number of such events have occurred, that the desired deflection is being successfully achieved. The pulses each have a very brief duration, but we achieve the required net deflection by transmitting many such sets of pulses per unit time and then using our observations to continuously improve the deflection process.”
The black cloud of ejecta created by the laser impulses becomes clear within roughly 3 microseconds, allowing for the next short burst.
Components for such a system are already in use or can be engineered within a reasonable time period. “Much of the required technology is existing stuff that is out there now. It’s not too expensive,” Dr. Fork said, adding that the concept is an evolution of work he has been involved in since he was at Bell Laboratories in the 1980s. “It’s doable in a few years if the effort is well-funded.”
UAH graduate student Luke Burgess has developed an algorithm needed for optimally positioning the microspacecraft that orbit the asteroid and deliver the deflecting impulses.
“As a research university, we are going about it in great detail,” said Dr. Fork, noting that his team includes both physicists and engineers and that he also is probing the problem with about 50 students in a laser systems class and also in a special topics class called Cooperative Quantum Energy. “We waited to announce this in the media until we had a reasonably well-developed technical story to tell. We believe that if you do the engineering right, this can be accomplished relatively simply and at reasonable cost.”
The power needed to shift the path of a small asteroid appears achievable from an engineering standpoint in the relatively near future, Dr. Fork said.
The Latest Bing News on:
Asteroid defense system
- NASA and SpaceX Launched First Rocket to Test a Defense System Against Giant Asteroids in the Futureon November 28, 2021 at 9:44 am
NASA launched DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test), the world’s first technology mission to defend Earth against asteroids or comets.
- Spacecraft launches to deflect an asteroid in planetary defense missionon November 24, 2021 at 2:10 pm
The world’s first full-scale planetary defense test is in motion. The mission is called DART and what scientists learn from it could save humankind from a future catastrophic event. Nancy Chabot is a ...
- In planetary defense test, NASA hopes to crash spacecraft into asteroid’s moonleton November 24, 2021 at 11:01 am
NASA launched a spacecraft early Wednesday morning that will crash into the moonlet of a double asteroid system to try to knock it off its path.
- NASA is testing a planetary-defense system like nothing we’ve ever seenon November 24, 2021 at 6:19 am
NASA will launch a multimillion-dollar spacecraft today, with plans to crash it into an asteroid in 2022, as a test for a possible asteroid defense system. It’s the first test of a new ...
- NASA and SpaceX Launch Mission to Test Earth Defense Tech by Intentionally Crashing Into Asteroidon November 24, 2021 at 5:30 am
It's all about being prepared. In short, the DART mission is aimed at providing greater insight into how our planet might be better prepared for future events.
- Planetary defense: NASA mission targeting asteroid is on its wayon November 24, 2021 at 4:31 am
The mission target is Dimorphos, a small moon orbiting the near-Earth asteroid Didymos. This will be the agency's first full-scale demonstration of this type of technology on behalf of planetary ...
- NASA launches asteroid defense system teston November 23, 2021 at 7:38 pm
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test launches Nov. 23 aboard a SpaceX rocket from California and will cruise for 10 months to a binary asteroid system.
- NASA to test astroid planetary defense system early Wednesday morning.on November 23, 2021 at 7:17 pm
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test launches at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning but it won't reach the asteroid until the Fall of 2022.
- NASA to Test Defense System Against Asteroidson November 23, 2021 at 3:05 pm
NASA’s first ever planetary defense test mission is set to launch Tuesday night. It’s an attempt to deflect an asteroid 6.5 million miles from earth. Scientists who worked on dart – or “Double ...
- NASA is ramming a spacecraft into an asteroid as part of a planetary defense test missionon November 23, 2021 at 8:46 am
NASA is set to launch a spacecraft on Tuesday that will ram into an asteroid, and purposefully change its orbit, as part of a test mission that could prevent humanity from suffering the fate of the ...
The Latest Google Headlines on:
Asteroid defense system
The Latest Bing News on:
- Asteroid deflection, fact not fiction: What Nasa’s DART probe plans for Didymoonon December 3, 2021 at 7:14 am
You have seen this in a movie, that a big asteroid is hurtling towards Earth threatening to destroy it, but scientists save the day. In Armageddon Nasa scientists train a team of oil drillers ...
- Could we really deflect an asteroid heading for Earth? An expert explains NASA's DART missionon December 2, 2021 at 7:00 am
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) lifted off aboard a SpaceX rocket from California on Nov. 23 and will arrive at the target asteroid system in September, next year. The mission will travel ...
- NASA Is Practicing Asteroid Deflection. You Know, Just in Case.on November 30, 2021 at 5:03 am
The last thing anyone needs to think about right now is a catastrophic asteroid impact. And, thankfully, most of us don’t have to! Earth is not in immediate threat of a space ro ...
- 'Armageddon' director Michael Bay on NASA's asteroid deflection test: 'Our plan was not far off'on November 29, 2021 at 7:34 am
Michael Bay made a movie about NASA's last-ditch mission to save humanity by destroying an asteroid hurtling towards Earth. Now, at least a few pieces of the plot of that film are playing out in real ...
- NASA Launches DART Asteroid Deflection Missionon November 29, 2021 at 5:21 am
NASA just launched the DART spacecraft early Wednesday morning on a mission to test asteroid redirection technology. Next year, it will collide with a space rock called Dimorphos with the aim of ...
- Asteroid deflection and disordered diamonds — the week in infographicson November 26, 2021 at 2:56 am
Nature highlights three key infographics from the week in science and research. NASA has just launched a multimillion-dollar spacecraft with the aim of slamming it into an asteroid. Rather than being ...
- NASA Successfully Launches DART Mission to Test Asteroid Deflectionon November 25, 2021 at 11:53 am
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission launched November 24, 2021 at 1:21 a.m. EST on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in ...
- NASA Dart spacecraft: Space agency launches first ever asteroid deflection missionon November 24, 2021 at 8:16 am
Scientists including Stephen Hawking have described impact events as among the greatest threats facing humanity - and even if the planetary defence mission proves successful, huge questions about our ...
- NASA launches first mission to test asteroid deflectionon November 24, 2021 at 2:09 am
NASA will crash a spacecraft into an asteroid for the first time ever as part of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), a planetary defense mission.
- NASA launches mission to crash into a near-Earth asteroid to try to change its motion in spaceon November 24, 2021 at 1:48 am
A NASA spacecraft that will deliberately crash into an asteroid has successfully launched. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test lifted off at 10:21 p.m. PT on3. NASA will test its asteroid deflection ...