Blow Up an Asteroid? NASA Scientist Says the Key to Saving Earth From Bennu May Actually Be Paint

Thursday, 22 March 2018 - 1:06PM
Weird Science
Thursday, 22 March 2018 - 1:06PM
Blow Up an Asteroid? NASA Scientist Says the Key to Saving Earth From Bennu May Actually Be Paint
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Image credit: YouTube
A lot of fuss has been made over the past few weeks about Bennu, a giant asteroid that has a 2000 to 1 chance of crashing into the Earth in a little over a hundred years' time.

The general press has made a big deal out of the fact that the asteroid is larger than the Empire State Building (which apparently is a measurement tool for giant space rocks now), and could, if we're very unlucky, make a significant dent in our planet when it finally arrives.

Many news reports have also inexplicably drawn the conclusion that there's nothing that humanity can do to stop Bennu's oncoming wave of destruction, which is a peculiar thing to believe, considering that many organizations around the world are actively involved in drawing up asteroid defense plans that involve giant lasers and nuclear missiles.

One scientist with specialist knowledge of Bennu has come up with a particularly unorthodox strategy for dealing with the threat of impending doom. Apparently, all that it'll take for the asteroid to be defeated is a few splashes of paint.

Michael Moreau is the Flight Dynamics System Manager for the ongoing OsirisREx mission, which involves sending a probe all the way to Bennu, taking some samples of its rocky exterior, and then returning to Earth so that we can study them. This sounds a little like a mission borne of impatience considering that Bennu will eventually get a lot closer to Earth either way, but there's a lot that can be learned about the space rock now that will feel like old news once Benny arrives.

According to Moreau, the logistics of traveling through space are so complex, and the distance between Earth and Bennu is so great, that even the slightest change in conditions provided by a coat of paint could change the asteroid's trajectory.

Said Moreau:

Opening quote
"Even just painting the surface a different color on one half would change the thermal properties and change its orbit."
Closing quote

This seems logical enough, despite the challenge in getting enough cans of paint into space to be able to attempt such a feat.

Nevertheless, the idea of giving the asteroid a gentle nudge to push it away makes a lot of sense. The problem with the more popular Armageddon-style approach of blowing the asteroid up is that it's hard to calculate where all of the debris from Bennu might end up. Instead of being hit by one giant asteroid, we could be peppered by thousands of smaller shards that create a lot of destruction in their own right.

Probably, the best strategy for dealing with Bennu doesn't involve any paint, or missiles, or even a giant laser. Considering that this thing is still a hundred years away from the vague chance of collision, we ought to trust that our descendants are able to use more advanced calculation tools to ascertain whether the asteroid is actually a threat. If so, they can use the, again, more advanced technology of the future to push Bennu away.

For once, sitting on our hands and doing nothing might actually be the best strategy. It's certainly more helpful than rushing around with a few cans of white emulsion in the vague hope that we can paint our way to safety.

This version of Armageddon certainly sounds like a lot less fun—a ragtag group of heroes are blasted into space, on an important mission to literally watch paint dry.

Even Michael Bay wouldn't make that movie.
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