Feeds

Only nukes can stop planetsmash asteroids, say US boffins

Nix on the 'world free of nuclear weapons', Mr President

High performance access to file storage

Top American boffins have warned that the US government's efforts to prevent global apocalypse caused by meteor strike are inadequate. The scientists add that nuclear weapons are the only practical means of defence against large, planet-wrecker sized asteroids.

In a new report, the US National Research Council says that so-called Near Earth Objects (NEOs) fall broadly speaking into three classes.

First and most terrible are large NEOs bigger than 1km (eg roughly Vatican sized and up) which would release energies in the hundred-thousand-megaton range - more than a global nuclear war, and with similarly catastrophic consequences for human civilisation or even survival. NASA has got most of these NEOs logged in its databanks, but not all - there are likely to be a few on orbits which only bring them within observation at very long intervals.

Apart from planet-busting big jobs like these, however, there are also a lot of quite hefty space boulders, snowballs etc in the 140m+/cathedral size range. These, owing to their terrific speed, would tend to cause destruction in the hundred-megaton range on impact - equivalent to a limited nuclear bombardment.

NASA was ordered by the US Congress to log 90 per cent of these medium-sized NEOs by 2020, and according to the National Research Council analysts this simply isn't going to happen as things stand - in large part because the politicians didn't assign any extra funds and the administration has asked for none. The $4m per annum the US currently spends on sky-search activities is seen as inadequate.

That said, the NRC's new report offers some alternative ways ahead which could see most of the threatening space objects spotted - either on time by 2020 using an expensive space-based telescope system, or taking a bit longer using cheaper ground instruments. The boffins also say that NASA should start scanning for smaller, 30-50m (ordinary church) sized objects, as these would still be very nasty if they hit in a populated area.

This much had already been mostly stated in a preliminary report released last year, but the NRC boffins have now gone further and taken a look at the various tactics humanity might use in the event of a dangerous NEO being detected. There are many of these, some of them quite delicate and refined - using the gravitational pull of a spacecraft's own mass to minutely drag an asteroid off course, for instance.

But "slow push/pull" methods like these are practical, according to the NRC, only for smaller NEOs and "would likely require decades of warning". Even "kinetic" plans where a spacecraft crashes into an asteroid would only work on less potent sub-Vatican threats, and again "may require decades of warning".

In the current state of human technology, the NRC warns, the only way to be sure is to nuke 'em from orbit:

Nuclear explosions are the only current, practical means for dealing with large NEOs (diameters greater than 1 kilometer) or as a backup for smaller ones if other methods were to fail.

It would seem that current plans by President Obama to strive for "a world free of nuclear weapons" would in the end - sooner or later - be a death warrant for humanity, rather than its salvation.

The full NRC report can be read here. ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Elon Musk's LEAKY THRUSTER gas stalls Space Station supply run
Helium seeps from Falcon 9 first stage, delays new legs for NASA robonaut
Russian deputy PM: 'We are coming to the Moon FOREVER'
Plans to annex Earth's satellite with permanent base by 2030
KILLER SPONGES menacing California coastline
Surfers are safe, crustaceans less so
LOHAN's Punch and Judy show relaunches Thursday
Weather looking good for second pop at test flights
New FEMTO-MOON sighted BIRTHING from Saturn's RING
Icy 'Peggy' looks to be leaving the outer rings
Discovery time for 200m WONDER MATERIALS shaved from 4 MILLENNIA... to 4 years
Alloy, Alloy: Boffins in speed-classification breakthrough
Curiosity finds not-very-Australian-shaped rock on Mars
File under 'messianic pastries' and move on, people
Top Secret US payload launched into space successfully
Clandestine NRO spacecraft sets off on its unknown mission
Get your MOON GEAR: Auction to feature Space Race memorabilia
Keepsakes from early NASA, Soviet programs up for bids
prev story

Whitepapers

Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
HP ArcSight ESM solution helps Finansbank
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.