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Star Trek tractor beam to save Earth from asteroid Armageddon

One of three ways world's top boffins will save us from planet killers

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A new international consortium has been set up to figure out what Earthlings could do if an asteroid came hurtling towards the planet on a path of imminent destruction.

The project will look at three methods of averting disaster: the Hollywood-sanctioned solutions of sending up a crack team of deep drillers with a nuclear bomb to sort it out, or frantically hurling of all our nukes at it; dragging it to safety with a Star Trek-inspired tractor beam; or hitting it with something we have more control over, like a spaceship.

Sporting the cool moniker NEOShield, the project will explore the possibilities for kinetic impactors, gravity tractors and blast deflection as ways to save our planet from oblivion.

NEOShield will be led by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), supported by €4m of European Commission money, and will include research institutes, universities and companies from the UK, France, Spain, Russia and the US as well as Germany.

"There is currently no concerted international plan addressing the impact threat and how to organise, prepare and implement mitigation measures," a NEOShield paper (PDF) states.

"Protecting the Earth from Near Earth Object (NEO) impacts is a global problem and, as such, any mitigation strategy should involve at least the most scientifically and technologically capable nations."

The kinetic impactor idea (slamming into the asteroid with something heavy) has already been explored by the European Space Agency in its Don Quijote mission, where it looked at sending a spacecraft to hit the space-rock, but that study didn't answer every question.

"The efficiency of momentum transfer from the impactor to the hazardous NEO depends not only on the physical properties of the target… but also on the impact accuracy," NEOShield said, adding that it would focus on the guidance, navigation and control of the hit-spacecraft.

The gravity tractor, on the other hand, is strictly theoretical and has only been seen in action on Star Trek. This is where a spacecraft would affect the asteroid's intended destructive path by dragging it one way or another using gravitational forces.

There's obviously lots to be figured out there, including how big the tractor beam has to be, how much power it would take to deflect the NEO, the required distances between the two, how long it would take, and pretty much every other question you can think of.

Finally, NEOShield will look at the time-honoured response of "Hurl all our nukes at it!", otherwise known as blast deflection, including burying the bomb on asteroid, although it admits that this would only be appropriate in extreme circumstances.

The first problem here will be to stop everyone freaking out when someone fires off a nuke by making sure nuclear response is internationally coordinated.

The boffins will also have to figure out if surface or buried blasts would be more effective, and if they did want to bury it, would "current penetrator technology" do the job.

The project is kicking off this week and is expected to run for around three-and-a-half years.

"In the light of results arising from our research into the feasibility of the various mitigation approaches and the mission design work, we aim to formulate for the first time a global response campaign roadmap that may be implemented when an actual significant impact threat arises," NEOShield boldly stated. ®

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