Every so often, we hear about a huge asteroid that’s on course for a near-miss with Earth, which serves as a reminder of just how close our planet has come to disaster raining down from above. Scientists are often working on ways of protecting Earth from these massive asteroids, and now we have yet another suggestion. Along the lines of the solution offered up by NASA earlier this month, a group of Russian scientists now suggests that it’s possible to nuke asteroids that are on a collision course with Earth.
Testing a way to nuke asteroids
Scientists from Rosatom, Russia’s atomic energy organization, worked with a team from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. The group published a paper on their method of trying to nuke asteroids in the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics. Part of their goal was to determine just how much firepower they would need in order to successfully nuke asteroids of different sizes, blowing them right out of the skies.
To put things into perspective, they learned that in order to blow up a 650-foot asteroid that’s heading straight for Earth, they would need a nuclear bomb as strong as 200 of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. That would amount to a nuclear bomb that’s about 3 megatons in size.
Space.com explains the math behind its example. The bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons; since each megaton is 1,000 kilotons, that’s a small fraction of the firepower that’s needed to blow a huge asteroid out of the sky. The site also offered some other interesting perspective on nuclear firepower which shows just how tricky it’s going to be to build a bomb that’s powerful enough to nuke asteroids. The most powerful nuclear bomb that was ever built was 50 megatons in size, which is still a fraction of the power apparently needed to blow up an asteroid.
If the size of the bomb needed to nuke asteroids of that size isn’t interesting enough, another fascinating tidbit was the way they arrived at it. In order to test the amount of firepower they would need, they fired a laser at a miniature model of an asteroid and then scaled it up to determine estimates of size and power needed to blow it up.
Here’s how they conducted their tests
To test out their theory for nuking asteroids, the researchers built tiny versions of asteroids based on the meteorite that blew up in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, which Space.com covered here. In order to determine a comparative composition for their miniature asteroid, they used a piece of the meteorite that was picked up from Lake Chebarkul. The scientists put their mini asteroids into a vacuum chamber to simulate what it would be like to explode a nuclear bomb in space and then they fired a laser at them inside the vacuum.
In conducting their tests, the scientists also found that they would get bonus points of sorts if they could cause the nuclear bomb to explode inside a crater on the asteroid. This would increase the power of the bomb because instead of exploding on the surface, it would be exploding deeper in the asteroid.
Just in case the plan to nuke asteroids doesn’t work out in the real world, the scientists are also working on an alternate way to fend against massive rocks on a collision course with Earth. The other option is to deflect the asteroid away from Earth without blowing it up.