August 31, 2009

Spacecraft To Battle Asteroids

Scientists in the UK have developed blueprints for a spacecraft that is intended to save the world from being destroyed by asteroid collisions.

Scientists from space company EADS Astrium have created plans for a "gravity tractor" that would play the role of asteroid deflector for Earth.

To date, there are 1068 known "potentially hazardous asteroids" in space, according to NASA's Near Earth Object Program.

NASA has also reported that there are more than 100,000 asteroids orbiting near Earth that are large enough to threaten entire cities.

"Anything bigger than 30m (32 yards) across is a real threat to the Earth," said Dr Ralph Cordey, head of exploration and business at EADS Astrium.

"Unfortunately it is a matter of when rather than if one of them hits us."

Cordey told BBC News that he first thought the concept of a gravity tractor was unlikely.

"Frankly I thought it was crackers. I thought it would never work," said Cordey.

The spacecraft would work by identifying potentially dangerous asteroids on a path toward Earth.

The craft would then fly within about 160 feet of the asteroid in order to create a gravitational pull that will alter the asteroid's position and keep it from striking the Earth.

"These asteroids are hurtling around our solar system at 10km per second, so when you scale that up, you just need a tiny nudge to send it off course," said Cordey.

But scientists told the BBC that the craft would actually have to be launched 15 years before any predicted collision.

"We have done quite a lot of design work on this with the European Space Agency and we believe this would work just as well on a big solid iron asteroid as well as other types," said Cordey.

Image Courtesy NASA/NEAR Project (JHU/APL)


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