Explosive Idea to Blast Craters in Asteroids
CREDIT: Ball Aerospace & Technologies
To the disappointment of Michael Bay fans worldwide, blowing stuff up on an asteroid is still a beautiful, elusive, testosterone-charged Hollywood dream. But one recent proposal for NASA may someday make it real by deploying explosive space pods the size of soccer balls to target space rocks.
It's simple, it's cheap for a space mission, and it requires no new technologies . It's also in the name of science the shockwaves and even the craters left behind could help reveal the makeup of any asteroid's rocky mass. That knowledge could then pave the way for NASA's planned human mission to a near-Earth asteroid.
"We're not waiting on any new physics to fly this," said Daniel Scheeres, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "We're just waiting for the go-ahead to go and do it."
The idea was reviewed favorably by NASA for its latest round of Discovery-class planetary missions , even if it failed to make the cut this time. Meanwhile, a group of academics and engineers from Ball Aerospace have already begun testing versions of the pods on Earth.
Science goes boom
Explosives have been considered in the past to destroy or deflect dangerous space rocks headed for Earth, but experts have warned that miscalculations could put some rocks on even more hazardous trajectories.
Fortunately, the latest idea doesn't have any Armageddon-style disturbances in mind. Each pod would pack just 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of explosives to rattle the targets and cause shockwaves that fellow pods could measure with seismometers on the asteroid's surface.
"That would have a negligible effect on trajectory," Scheeres told InnovationNewsDaily. "It's equivalent to a centimeter-sized or smaller meteorite striking a given asteroid; it happens pretty frequently."
[Read More: Space Probe Swarms to Slam into Planets for Science ]
The explosions' craters could also tell scientists about the asteroid's strength. Some asteroids consist of largely solid rock, but others may represent softer rock or even loose collections of rubble held together by gravity.
The pod explosions leave behind craters of more than 6 feet (2 meters), but that could translate into craters more than 65 feet (20 meters) in size within the low-gravity environment of an asteroid, Scheeres said.
Making the run
Approaching a target asteroid would be as simple as a spacecraft deploying the pods to land at speeds of 5 to 10 centimeters per second, or far below even 1 mile per hour. The pods would have enough battery life to sit on the asteroid for several days before being set off more than enough time for the observer spacecraft to find a perfect vantage point.
"It's not like we're hurling a hand grenade and then running away," Scheeres said.
Explosive pods don't have to be the only way to tap into the secrets of asteroids. A spacecraft lander could scratch at the surface of a space rock, Scheeres said. He also cited a Japanese proposal to shoot a projectile into an asteroid with what amounts to a bazooka.
Japan's Hayabusa mission returned to Earth last year with small samples from the asteroid Itokawa, and NASA also has another sample-return mission called OSIRIS-Rex planned for launch in 2016. But Scheeres and his colleagues believe that researchers need to be able to study "asteroids in the wild" rather than simply bringing back samples.
"These measurements are crucial for the development and design of future human missions to asteroids," Scheeres said.