To avert a new apocalypse – this time set for February 2013 – scientists suggest confronting asteroid 2012 DA14 with either paint, or big guns. The tough part of either scheme is that time has long run out to build a spaceship for any operation.
NASA confirms the 60-meter (197-feet) asteroid, spotted by Spanish stargazers in February, has a good chance of colliding with Earth in eleven months.
The rock’s closest approach to the planet is scheduled for February 15, 2013, when the distance between the planet and space wanderer will be under 27,000 km (16,700 miles). This is lower than the geosynchronous orbit kept by the Google Maps satellite.
Fireworks and watercolors
With the asteroid zooming that low, it will be too late to do anything with it besides trying to predict its final destination and the consequences of impact.
A spaceship is needed, experts agree. It could shoot the rock down or just crash into it, either breaking the asteroid into debris or throwing it off course.
“We could paint it,” says NASA expert David Dunham.
Paint would affect the asteroid’s ability to reflect sunlight, changing its temperature and altering its spin. The asteroid would stalk off its current course, but this could also make the boulder even more dangerous when it comes back in 2056, Aleksandr Devaytkin, the head of the observatory in Russia’s Pulkovo, told Izvestia.
Whatever the mission, building a spaceship to deal with 2012 DA14 will take two years – at least.
The asteroid has proven a bitter discovery. It has been circling in orbit for three years already, crossing Earth’s path several times, says space analyst Sergey Naroenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences. It seems that spotting danger from outer space is still the area where mere chance reigns, while asteroid defense systems exist only in drafts.
Still, prospects of meeting 2012 DA14 are not all doom and gloom.
“The asteroid may split into pieces entering the atmosphere. In this case, most part of it will never reach the planet’s surface,” remarks Dunham.
But if the entire asteroid is to crash into the planet, the impact will be as hard as in the Tunguska blast, which in 1908 knocked down trees over a total area of 2,150 sq km (830 sq miles) in Siberia. This is almost the size of Luxembourg. In today’s case, the destination of the asteroid is yet to be determined.
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NASA Confirms the 60-meter (197-feet) Asteroid Has a Good Chance of Colliding with Earth in Eleven Months
US space agency Nasa has funded a study of “tractor beams” to gather samples for analysis in future missions.
The $100,000 (£63,000) award will be used to examine three laser-based approaches to do what has until now been the stuff of science fiction.
Several tractor-beam ideas have been published in the scientific literature but none has yet been put to use.
Nasa scientist Paul Stysley says the approach could “enhance science goals and reduce mission risk”.
“Though a mainstay in science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, laser-based trapping isn’t fanciful or beyond current technological know-how,” said Dr Stysley of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center, whose group was awarded the research funding.
The team has identified three possible options to capture and gather up sample material either in future orbiting spacecraft or on planetary rovers.
The approach could be put to use in space and on planetary surfaces One is an adaptation of a well-known effect called “optical tweezers” in which objects can be trapped in the focus of one or two laser beams. However, this version of the approach would require an atmosphere in which to operate.
The other two methods rely on specially shaped laser beams – instead of a beam whose intensity peaks at its centre and tails off gradually, the team is investigating two alternatives: solenoid beams and Bessel beams.
The intensity peaks within a solenoid beam are found in a spiral around the line of the beam itself, while a Bessel beam’s intensity rises and falls in peaks and troughs at higher distances from the beam’s line.
Solenoid beams have already proven their “tractor beam” abilities in laboratory tests published in the journal Optics Express, but the pulling power of Bessel beams, presented on the preprint server Arxiv in February, remains to be proved experimentally.
In all three cases, explained Dr Stysley, the effect is a small one – but it could in some instances outperform existing methods of sample gathering.
“[Current] techniques have proven to be largely successful, but they are limited by high costs and limited range and sample rate,” he said.
“An optical-trapping system, on the other hand, could grab desired molecules from the upper atmosphere on an orbiting spacecraft or trap them from the ground or lower atmosphere from a lander.
“In other words, they could continuously and remotely capture particles over a longer period of time, which would enhance science goals and reduce mission risk.”