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Not to be outdone by their counterparts in Europe, engineers in the UK have started a three year study into ways of intercepting or deflecting asteroids that might smash into the planet.

The idea is that the engineers will only consider methods that could practically be implemented using today's technology, and to develop different strategies for different types of asteroid.

Ultimately, the project could result in the design of more versatile space probes, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) says. Since there are no asteroids currently threatening the planet, an object that is on a collision course will be a newly discovered beastie.

Astronomers won't know much about the asteroid's orbit, so aiming a probe at it could be something of a hit and miss affair. Any probe sent to intercept an asteroid would need to be able to adjust its course, if it quite on target to begin with.

The team will have consider fuel loads, so-called general purpose orbits and flexible navigation strategies that would keep a spacecraft's options open for longer, before committing it to a final destination.

But there will be no Bruce Willis-style nuke-wielding spacemen, however strong the temptation may be.

One idea that has already been floated is that of using space mirrors to focus sunlight onto the surface of the asteroid. The theory is that this would boil away a section, creating a natural rocket to push the rock in the opposite direction.

The principle of a using a space craft as a battering ram and just shoving the asteroid off course is also on the list of ideas to work through.

Read more on the EPSRC site here. ®

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