'Move An Asteroid' Competition May Help Protect Planet

How would you deflect an asteroid if it were hurtling towards Earth? A competition run by the Space Generation Advisory Council asks students and young professionals to submit their ideas. Competition winner Alison Gibbings shares her idea for a 'smart cloud' that would slow down an asteroid.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

Next up, how to fend off a killer asteroid. Hollywood has been working on it for a while now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARMAGEDDON")

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (as Dan Truman) Here's what we're going to do. I want every strategy we've got on near-Earth object collision, OK, any ideas, any programs, anything you sketched on a pizza box or a cocktail napkin. For 30 years, I questioned the need for NASA. Today, we're going to give them the answer.

FLATOW: And we got to try to find a real answer to Billy Bob Thornton in that classic movie "Armageddon," and blowing up an asteroid is not one of them. It's not such a good idea, because you just create a whole bunch of new asteroids heading to the Earth, do - to wreak damage and havoc there too. Do you have a better idea? The Move An Asteroid competition asked that question of students and young professionals. They were to submit their plan for dealing with an asteroid or other object that's on a collision course with Earth.

And my guest is this year's winner of the competition, organized by the Space Generation Advisory Council. She really has an imaginative solution to the problem. Alison Gibbings is a PhD student at the Advanced Space Concept Lab at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ALISON GIBBINGS: Hello. It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: You found a way of creating, not blowing up, but creating and injecting a swarm of nanoparticles at it? Tell us about it.

GIBBINGS: Yeah. Well, the concept is called Smart Cloud, as effectively a large cloud of small particles that are very low mass but high velocity. So think of it much like hundreds and thousands of marbles on a collision course with the asteroid. And each particle, in this case marble, would individually impact the asteroid and creating an impulse and subsequent change in momentum. And it's that sort of individual impulse, which is acting on a cumulative, over a large time span, would push the asteroid away from its sort of initially impacting trajectory and, ultimately, deviate it away from Earth. So that's the initial concept.

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Alison Gibbings. So are these particles - is this cloud actually made of marble-sized objects and are they intelligent? Are they computerized? Or are they just pieces of stuff...

GIBBINGS: Well, at the proposal, we actually considered each particle to be a small spacecraft-in-a-chip approach. So if you think of hundreds and thousands of microgram - tiny space, that's sort of the size. And they'd all fly in sort of relative formation to each other, they'd have a degree of, sort of, active control and operations, and so they can control the orientation in space. And when they impact the asteroid, they kind of impact it en masse.

FLATOW: So you have - so you gently shove it with this cloud that engulfs it.

GIBBINGS: Yes.

FLATOW: Wow. And how practical is this? And how fast could we do this? Have you simulated this in the computer?

GIBBINGS: Yeah. The idea has been simulated and compared against other techniques out there, such as sort of kinematic impactors(ph) and low-thrust tugs. And it seems to be a feasible technique in terms of how much deflection and deflection ratio we get and how much you could effectively push the asteroid. In terms of the spacecraft-on-a-chip approach, each of the particles within the cloud, that's based on technologies from the U.S., the University of Cornell, and the first sort of spacecraft-on-a-chip approach to - based on that design and structure design has been tested through early next year. So it's based on, kind of, near and nearish technologies.

FLATOW: Would these spacecraft on a chip - these tiny, little chips be communicating with each other?

GIBBINGS: They would know where each other are in space. They wouldn't actually control - communicate with each other directly, but they would be aware of each other so they could kind of orientate themselves in a global, sort of, way.

FLATOW: So they could stay as a cloud?

GIBBINGS: Yeah, they could as a stay in a cloud and they could stay - and they could maintain their shape and sort of formation as they impact the asteroid - well before impact.

FLATOW: So there would be a space vehicle that take - goes up close to the asteroid, releases this cloud of computers on a chip and then would have to get out of the way itself so it doesn't impact the asteroid, right?

GIBBINGS: Yes. Yeah. Ideally, we would have, initially, the spacecraft - so the spacecraft that carries all these hundreds and thousands of small particle spacecraft would enter a collision course with the asteroids. It would then release these big swarm of clouds, and then it would veer off away from its, sort of, collision course. So it can monitor the formation of the cloud and assess that the impact's being successful.

FLATOW: So what kind of reaction - have you got people interested in building this?

GIBBINGS: Well, it's a new concept, it's going to be presented at the International Astronautics Congress and at the SGAC Congress. So it's got quite a lot of interest. The, sort of, the community of asteroid impacts and, sort of, mitigation technologies is fairly smallish but is growing, so we have a lot of interest, you know, internationally as well. So it's one of these emerging areas.

FLATOW: How did you get interested in this?

GIBBINGS: Well, I've always been a bit of a space geek, so I think space and exploration has really sparked my imagination. And I initially got involved with asteroid impacts and mitigation through my PhD initially and just, sort of, through my PhD research It was just something that just sort of ran off it.

FLATOW: Well, that's good that you're interested because there's not at lot of money going into this research, is there?

GIBBINGS: No, there isn't. And considering it's such a - you know, if an asteroid was to impact the Earth, it would be such a global endeavor and it would affect, you know, the whole of humanity. The amount of funding is, sort of, low.

FLATOW: Do you think it's just a matter of time before another one hits us?

GIBBINGS: Definitely. I mean, the most publicized case of a near-Earth asteroid is asteroid for 99942 Apophis and that has what scientists and engineers consider a non-negligible impact risk of an asteroid collision occurring in 2039. You know, that's subject to, you know, complex orbital mechanics and dynamics, but it's still there. And it will be a good, you know, eye-opener to the, know, kind of community, both sort of academic, industry and government, to the fact that just because you can't see asteroids, you know, they're here. They are a presence in our solar system.

FLATOW: And we had been hit before, very famous...

GIBBINGS: Definitely, yeah.

FLATOW: Thank you very much, Alison, and good luck to you. Congratulations.

GIBBINGS: Thank you. Thanks.

FLATOW: Alison Gibbings is a PhD student at the Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

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