Proposal To Move An Asteroid

Edward Lu of the B612 Foundation recently spoke before the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space of the Senate Commerce Committee regarding methods of defending ourselves against asteroid impacts.

(From Asteroid Ida [From NASA])

He offered what the B612 Foundation called a "bold new proposal" to demonstrate altering the orbit of an asteroid. As he points out, there is a ten percent chance that during our lifetimes there will be an asteriod striking Earth with the energy of 700 Hiroshima-sized bombs. Not to mention the much more remote chance of a civilization-ending strike. They will be starting with something a bit smaller than Ida, shown above. At roughly 56x24x21 kilometers in size, it's a bit larger than the B612 group wants to tackle - maybe something about 200 meters in diameter might be better to start with.

The group proposes using Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engines, which uses radio waves to ionize a gass and accelerate the plasma to high exhaust velocity.

However, this is not a new idea; it was proposed some sixty-five years previously in Misfit, a short story published by Robert Heinlein in 1939. The story introduces the character of Andrew "Slipstick" Libby, a mathematical genius who worked in the Cosmic Construction Corps while still a young boy. Their project: move Asteroid HS-5388 to a new orbit for habitation. (Historians of that era may enjoy the play on CCC - the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Roosevelt administration, which offered constructive work during the Great Depression.)

In the story, the asteroid is moved with permanently mounted rocket tubes, that would fire at precise intervals with exactly the right amount of force, to nudge the asteroid into a new orbit.

Update 26-Dec-2006: I found an older reference for this idea. In Edmond Hamilton's 1934 story Thundering Worlds, he explicitly mentions the same technique of carefully positioned blast pits.

Huge pits miles across and many miles deep were sunk in each planet at three points around its equator. These pits were metal-lined and thus were in fact stupendous tubes sunk in the planet.
(Read more about planetary propulsion End update)

See Why Move An Asteriod? for more information. More information about the technology that might be used for this mission may be found at Mission Possible: Asteroid Tugboat Backed For Trial Run.

Update: Take a look at Hayabusa Spacecraft Makes First Asteroid Landing for more on this topic; there is also a long quote from Heinlein's story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 5/17/2004)

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