A huge asteroid is hurtling towards Earth at devastating speed, and NASA intends to save the planet by blowing it up with a nuclear warhead, the Daily Star is reporting. However, it will be over a century before the whole situation plays out.
It may sound like the premise of a terrible summer sci-fi movie, but this is real: NASA has genuinely spotted an asteroid, lovingly named 101955 Bennu, and determined that its size, speed, and orbit put it on a potential collision course with Earth. And they genuinely plan to steer it away from danger with the use of nuclear weapons.
Fortunately, they’ll have about a century to work out all of the math, considering that none of this is expected to go down before 2135 — September 21, 2135, to be specific.
Here’s what we know: Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid that we’ve known about since 1999. It’s estimated to be about 1,600 feet in diameter (the size of a village, according to the Star) and weighs about 87 million tons. It’s hurtling through space at about 63,000 miles per hour, according to Buzzfeed.
And on that fateful day in 2135, there is a one in 2,700 chance that it will hit us. If that happens, the results will be catastrophic.
For NASA, those odds are not good. MIT impact expert Richard Binzel told Buzzfeed that this is something that needs to be taken seriously — and is being taken seriously.
“Smart people are taking this seriously and thinking carefully about what might be done.”
NASAs OSIRIS-REX mission will examine samples from an asteroid, seeking clues to the origin of life.. As the OSIRIS-RExprobe hurtles towards its rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu, it took the time to snap a breathtaking photo of Terra and its bright p… https://t.co/YpCxxd5DRD
— Nuek???????????????????? (@vnuek) March 8, 2018
So what’s the plan? Nukes, of course.
Specifically, the Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response (HAMMER) program has a couple of plans in the works, both involving nuclear warheads. One would be to simply blow the thing to smithereens, but that carries the risk of simply scattering the asteroid’s debris over a wider area.
A more sensible option involves using nukes to deflect the asteroid away — if it can be pulled off, that is. David Dearborn, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says that it’s theoretically possible to nudge the space rock out of the way with nukes.
“If the asteroid is small enough, and we detect it early enough, we can do it with the impactor. The impactor is not as flexible as the nuclear option when we really want to change the speed of the body in a hurry.”
Officials weren’t keen to give an estimate of the cost of such a plan. However, by way of comparison, Buzzfeed notes that a current scientific mission, the OSIRIS-REx mission, is headed toward Bennu right now, for study. That mission came with a price tag of $800 million.
Fortunately, the space agency has a solid century and some change before raising money for saving the world becomes critical.