With 20 years’ notice, paint pellets could cause an asteroid to veer off course.
In the event that a giant asteroid is headed toward Earth, you’d better hope that it’s blindingly white. A pale asteroid would reflect sunlight — and over time, this bouncing of photons off its surface could create enough of a force to push the asteroid off its course.
How might one encourage such a deflection? The answer, according to an MIT graduate student: with a volley or two of space-launched paintballs.
Sung Wook Paek, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says if timed just right, pellets full of paint powder, launched in two rounds from a spacecraft at relatively close distance, would cover the front and back of an asteroid, more than doubling its reflectivity, or albedo. The initial force from the pellets would bump an asteroid off course; over time, the sun’s photons would deflect the asteroid even more.
Paek’s paper detailing this unconventional strategy won the 2012 Move an Asteroid Technical Paper Competition, sponsored by the United Nations’ Space Generation Advisory Council, which solicits creative solutions to space-related problems from students and young professionals. Paek presented his paper this month at the International Astronautical Congress in Naples, Italy.
The challenge put forth by this year’s U.N. competition was to identify novel solutions for safely deflecting a near-Earth object, such as an asteroid. Scientists have proposed a wide variety of methods to avoid an asteroid collision. Some proposals launch a projectile or spacecraft to collide with an incoming asteroid; the European Space Agency is currently investigating such a mission.
Other methods have included detonating a nuclear bomb near an asteroid or equipping spacecraft as “gravity tractors,” using a craft’s gravitational field to pull an asteroid off its path.
Paek’s paintball strategy builds on a solution submitted by last year’s competition winner, who proposed deflecting an asteroid with a cloud of solid pellets. Paek came up with a similar proposal, adding paint to the pellets to take advantage of solar radiation pressure — the force exerted on objects by the sun’s photons. Researchers have observed that pressure from sunlight can alter the orbits of geosynchronous satellites, while others have proposed equipping spacecraft with sails to catch solar radiation, much like a sailboat catches wind.
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