Will NASA Be Able to Stop a Real-Life Armageddon?

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from 14 miles up as seen by the ESA Rosetta spacecraft on September 29, 2016—the day before the spacecraft was deliberately crashed into the comet. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

 
Anywhere from 60 to 100 tons of material falls to Earth every day. Most of it is in the form of dust and grain-sized particles and is harmless, but it's a reminder that a lot of stuff is out there. The weathering on the International Space Station provides startling evidence of that.

So what do we do if a not-so-harmless object is hurtling towards us?

Although a doomsday asteroid is a frightening prospect, don’t worry—NASA has a plan. The agency actively monitors space for dangerous objects and has conducted research into the best way to repel or destroy a space invader. Today, it is actively developing missions to do just that, and even has a department to deal with the problem: the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. But just how fast could the agency deal with an actual catastrophe? Here’s an inside look into NASA’s emergency planning system.

FIRST WE FIND IT.

NASA has several ongoing projects to survey the solar system for new celestial objects. In 2009, the agency launched an infrared telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Its mission, run by NASA's astrophysics division, was to create an infrared map of the entire sky. After the completion of its primary mission, NASA's planetary science directorate asked to extend the life of the spacecraft, re-purposing it as an asteroid hunter in 2013. NEOWISE was born. Over the course of its life, what the spacecraft has found is terrifying―hundreds of new near-Earth objects, and scores of potentially hazardous ones. In other words, the solar system is a lot scarier than we thought. Here on Earth, there are several observatories that work together with a goal of discovering, tracking, and characterizing this population of renegade asteroids and comets.

A small body called TB145―the "Great Pumpkin asteroid"―exemplifies how the discovery of a potentially hazardous object works in practice. On October 10, 2015, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (PAN-STARRS) in Hawaii spotted an object approximately 600 meters across that was speeding perilously toward Earth. The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia imaged it, and the Goldstone Deep Space Network telescope also took radar images. The Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii provided spectrometry. In a very short amount of time, scientists knew a lot about this scary new cosmic neighbor. The object was soon identified as the dead nucleus of a comet, its volatiles having been burned away. Moreover, scientists identified boulders several meters in size sitting on the object's surface. Those boulders matter because they can help steer the object away from Earth. We weren't in danger from it; its trajectory was well understood, and even at its closest pass, it was 300,000 miles away from the Earth.

THEN WE TRY TO MOVE IT.

 

 
Two of the rapidly maturing projects of the still very nascent asteroid deflection program are the Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment and the Asteroid Redirect Mission. These programs use two different techniques to attempt to change the orbit of space objects, kinetic deflection, and enhanced gravity tractoring.

The Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment is a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. It recently completed its concept study phase and has moved into design. The goal is to build a rendezvous spacecraft called the Asteroid Impact Monitor (AIM) that would fly to an asteroid called Didymos, which is easily reached from Earth but does not cross our orbital path. (In other words, if something goes terribly wrong with this experiment, we don't risk creating the potentially hazardous object we want to deflect.) Didymos is about a half-mile in diameter, and even has its own small moon, informally called Didymoon. Then NASA will launch a spacecraft called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). DART is a "kinetic impactor": It will plow into Didymoon and demonstrate how much energy can be imparted, and how much it changes the moon's orbital period. The hope is to test the effectiveness of a technique called "kinetic deflection," which would enable scientists to redirect an asteroid were it on an impact trajectory with Earth (provided they discovered the asteroid quickly enough).

Another such project in development is the Asteroid Redirect Mission, run by NASA's Human Exploration and Operations directorate. That mission is an element of NASA's "journey to Mars," and will further the development of solar electric propulsion, a technology designed to push large masses around the inner solar system—things like Mars habitat modules and cargo and, as a bonus, asteroids.

The asteroid redirect vehicle demonstrates the “gravity tractor” planetary defense technique on a hazardous-size asteroid. The gravity tractor method leverages the mass of the spacecraft to impart a gravitational force on the asteroid, slowly altering the asteroid’s trajectory. The demonstration is conducted after capturing the boulder and is referred to as the “enhanced gravity tractor” because the additional mass of the boulder enhances the force that can be transmitted to the asteroid. Image Credit: NASA

 
In fact, the near-Earth object observation program of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office helped identify places to test out the Asteroid Redirect Mission’s capabilities. When it launches, a robotic spacecraft will fly to asteroid 2008 EV5, a potentially hazardous object close to Earth that has been tentatively selected as the mission's target. The spacecraft will approach the asteroid's surface and survey it for boulders. Once scientists identify a suitable boulder, the robot will touch down on the surface using long landing legs, and then deploy grappling arms to grab hold of the boulder. With the boulder firmly in hand, the spacecraft will lift off from the asteroid surface.

Before flying back to Earth's orbit with the asteroid (for astronauts to study safely once it’s in a new, safe, lunar orbit), the spacecraft will first perform an "enhanced gravity tractor" maneuver—another kind of asteroid redirection. By flying near one side of the asteroid, the mass of the spacecraft and the tens-of-tons boulder will use gravity to gently and gradually alter the trajectory of the asteroid.

AND IF THAT DOESN'T WORK, WE BLOW IT UP.

In a pinch, there's the nuclear option [PDF]. If scientists discover an asteroid on an impact course with Earth and find that there's no time to build a spacecraft, study the object, and adjust its course with "slow push deflection/migration" techniques such as the gravity tractor, they can crack their knuckles and resort to "impulsive migration" techniques. The beauty of using a nuclear device on an asteroid is that you don't need to know much about the asteroid in advance. In a time-sensitive situation, this is your go-to option, and there are four ways of deploying it.

A standoff nuclear detonation involves a flyby of a hazardous object and using a proximity sensor to detonate a nuclear device. The explosion would push the asteroid off course. This technique is orders of magnitude less effective than plowing the nuke into the asteroid and pressing the red button, but it has the advantage of not fragmenting the asteroid. Fragments are bad. Remember the meteorite explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia?
 

 
That rock was a dinky 20 meters in diameter. If we created a sustained bombardment of such asteroid fragments, we would be in for a pretty bad time.

The standoff technique also allows for a progressive adjustment of an asteroid's course. We wouldn't be limited to launching a single nuke; we would launch several. (It's not like we're running low on nuclear weapons.) Rather than correct the asteroid's course in a single dramatic blast, we could more precisely adjust its course with a series of detonations.

Other nuclear use tactics are surface, subsurface, and delayed. A nuclear surface is like dropping a nuke on the asteroid. When it touches the asteroid's surface, it detonates. Subsurface is like the DART half of the Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment mission―the impactor drives a nuclear explosive deep into the asteroid, and it detonates. A delayed nuclear technique is just that: The nuke is landed on the asteroid and waits for scientists to detonate it when the time is right.

All of this can be done with conventional explosives as well, though it's unlikely that conventional explosives would pack enough punch to make much of a difference.

This Amateur Rocketeer Builds Functioning, Miniature Replicas of SpaceX Rockets

Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images

Amateur rocketry is a hobby that predates NASA. Hobbyists have successfully made it to space using rockets built without the massive budgets and resources available to larger organizations. And some of these rockets do more than reach incredible heights: As Motherboard reports, Joe Barnard, a 25-year-old rocketeer from Nashville, Tennessee, is working on making model rockets capable of propulsive landings, the same trick that makes some SpaceX rockets reusable.

Most rocket boosters that propel loads past the Earth's atmosphere are designed to go only one way. In 2015, Elon Musk's space exploration company SpaceX made history when it successfully maneuvered the boosters used to launch its Falcon 9 rocket back onto the landing pad. SpaceX says its latest version of the rocket can be re-flown up to 100 times, saving the company millions of dollars per launch.

Joe Barnard is bringing this same level of innovation to the amateur rocketry world. He first became interested in aerospace engineering after watching early SpaceX videos, and instead of earning a degree in the field, he taught himself the basics. He's since made rocketry into a career, founding Barnard Propulsion Systems (BPS), a small business that sells supplies to other hobbyists, and working on rockets of his own.

Like the rockets at SpaceX, Barnard's creations use thrust vectoring—the technology that makes it possible to navigate and stabilize a rocket after launch—only on a much smaller scale. He's built miniature models of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, and as is the case at SpaceX, his launches don't always run smoothly.

Barnard is still perfecting propulsive landings in amateur rockets, but for now he says each failure is a learning experience. You can watch the progress of his experiments on his YouTube channel.

[h/t Motherboard]

Ad Astra: The Time Earth Almost Got a Space Billboard

iStock
iStock

In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, everything associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger was big. Big biceps (22 inches during his bodybuilding heyday). Big box office (1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day made $520 million worldwide, the highest-grossing movie of that year). So it was no surprise to open a newspaper in 1993 and see that Columbia Pictures was spending $500,000 to plaster the actor's name and the title of his pending summer blockbuster, Last Action Hero, on the fuselage of a NASA rocket set for launch that June. Schwarzenegger himself was scheduled to push the button that would propel the spacecraft into orbit.

The NASA project deal was being brokered for commercial advertising purposes by Space Marketing Inc., an Atlanta-based firm specializing in sponsorships and ads located outside of the atmosphere. The company's CEO, Mike Lawson, told the Los Angeles Times that he could've sold "dozens" of ads for the rocket, but that he and NASA officials didn't want it to "look like a pace car at the Indy 500."

The idea of promoting a movie in space was brazen, but not nearly as much as another, more ambitious project that Lawson was planning. If everything went according to plan, his Space Marketing would shoot a payload into space in time for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Once it was in orbit, mylar tubes would inflate with gas and spring open to support a mile-wide, quarter-mile tall reflective sheet that would be visible from Earth. Lawson called it an "inflatable platform," but the press—and critics—quickly labeled it something else: a space billboard.

If Lawson had his way, it would be able to make everything from the Olympic rings to the McDonald's logo as visible to Earthbound consumers as a full moon.

 

In Robert Heinlein's 1950 novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, a lunar entrepreneur hustles to sell advertising space on the moon as part of his attempt to make colonization a profitable venture. Lawson—a onetime director of marketing for his father's publishing company in Atlanta and a fan of science fiction—read the story. In 1988, he founded Space Marketing as a way to defictionalize the concept.

As fantastic as it sounded, the idea wasn't without precedent. In 1981, telecommunications mogul Robert Lorsch made a presentation to Congress that outlined a strategy for allowing corporations to "sponsor" space travel by letting them buy plaques that would go onboard spacecraft. In the same way they endorsed the Olympics, Lorsch said, corporate America could help subsidize space travel.

A McDonald's logo is visible from space
iStock Collage

The plan was a response to then-president Ronald Reagan's plea to have the private sector assist in helping the government overcome their financial burdens. While Lorsch's proposal was prescient—it anticipated the rise of privatized space exploration—the idea of having commercial sponsors for NASA didn't make it through the Byzantine maze of Washington bureaucracy.

Lawson thought the idea could be taken further, and not necessarily with the cooperation of government. Partnering with scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Library and the University of Colorado, Lawson developed a plan to allow instruments developed by these institutions to go into orbit and collect information about the ozone layer. To underwrite the project, he would solicit commercial advertisers for the mile-long mylar sheet that would exit the atmosphere rolled up and then expand to full size once it reached orbit. The aluminized lettering would reflect the sun's rays, making whatever graphic it displayed visible for 10 minutes at a time at any given point on Earth. After roughly 20 days, it would disintegrate, leaving the sensors behind to continue collecting data for researchers.

'We could actually fly [the] Golden Arches in space," Lawson said in May 1993, referring to the ubiquitous McDonald's logo. With an estimated launch cost of $15 to $30 million, companies buying ads would cover expenses as well as contribute to a profit for Space Marketing—perhaps paying as much as $1 million for every day it was visible.

A few months later, the city of Atlanta began investigating Space Marketing's concept as a possible advertising vessel for the 1996 Olympics. "Special" glasses given away at point-of-purchase displays with cooperating sponsors would allow people to see the Olympic rings in orbit.

That last point appeared to be a concession to a growing chorus of concern over the idea of using space as a commercial entity. While proponents of the idea argued it was similar to blimps sailing overhead and displaying corporate propaganda messages, a coalition of scientists argued otherwise. Carl Sagan called it an "abomination," insisting that astronomy could soon become a practice of exploring the stars wedged between mile-wide ads for fast food and automobiles.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader led a group calling for an orbital billboard ban, labeling it a practice of "defacing the heavens." Other groups decried it as commercial pollution of space and vowed to boycott any companies involved. Supporters of Nader's Public Interest Research Group picketed Space Marketing's Atlanta headquarters.

Lawson tried to parry the attacks in media, saying that the phrase "space billboard" was the source of the controversy. He preferred the term "environmental billboard" and said that the whole objective was to have a global company foot the bill for scientific research.

 

Conceptually, the idea of a floating Arby's logo the perceived size of the moon was too dystopian for lawmakers to handle. In 1993, Congress submitted legislation that would prohibit the Transportation Department from issuing a launch license to any company prepared to shoot a corporate image into space. (The bill was eventually signed into law by Bill Clinton in 2000.)

None of this publicity was particularly helpful to Space Marketing, which saw its Olympic plans wilt in the face of both legislative opposition and the probability of massive pushback from space advocacy groups. They turned their attention to Russia, which had no ethical objections to space endorsements, and facilitated a 1999 project that saw Pizza Hut attach its logo to the Proton rocket that carried supplies to the International Space Station. (The chain previously considered projecting its logo with lasers on the surface of the moon but abandoned the idea when they realized it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.)

A rocket is propelled into space
iStock

Space Marketing's investors moved on to the blimp industry and the firm was dissolved by 2007, when Lawson became CEO of airship manufacturer Techsphere Systems. As for the Last Action Hero stunt: It dissolved when Columbia learned Lorsch was threatening legal action, claiming he owned a copyright on the idea of commercial space advertising. The movie itself also failed to launch, becoming a notorious summer bomb when it was pitted against Jurassic Park.

While space has largely been off-limits to such "obtrusive" advertising by law, not everyone agrees that's for the best. Earlier this month, it was reported that NASA is looking into selling off the naming right to its shuttles as a way to recoup some of the organization's costs. When Lorsch testified before a Senate subcommittee in 2004 to review his 1981 proposal, he said that his sponsorship program might have earned NASA $5 billion in revenue if it had been implemented.

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