BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese researchers want to send more than 20 of China’s largest rockets to practice deflecting a sizable asteroid, a technique that may eventually prove crucial if a killer rock is on a collision course with Earth.
The idea is more than science fiction. Sometime between late 2021 and early 2022, the United States will launch a robotic spacecraft to intercept two asteroids relatively close to Earth.
When it comes a year later, NASA’s spacecraft will crash into the smaller of the two rocky bodies to see how much the asteroid’s trajectory changes. It will be the first attempt by humanity to change the course of a celestial body.
At the China National Center for Space Sciences, researchers found in simulations that 23 Long March 5 rockets colliding simultaneously could deflect a large asteroid from its original path by a distance 1.4 times the radius of Earth.
Their calculations are based on an asteroid called Bennu, which orbits the sun, which is as wide as the Empire State Building is tall. It belongs to a class of rocks with the potential to cause regional or continental damage. Asteroids that extend for more than 1 km would have global consequences.
The science center cited a study recently published in Icarus, a journal on planetary science.
The March 5 rockets are key to China’s short-term space ambitions, from delivering space station modules to launching probes to the Moon and Mars. China has successfully launched six Long March 5 rockets since 2016, with the last one causing some safety concerns as its remnants reentered the atmosphere in May.
“The proposal to keep the upper stage of the launch rocket on a guide spacecraft, making a large ‘kinetic impactor’ to deflect an asteroid, is a pretty nice concept,” said Professor Alan Fitzsimmons of the University Astrophysical Research Center. Queen of Belfast.
“By increasing the mass that the asteroid hits, simple physics should guarantee a much greater effect,” Fitzsimmons told Reuters, although, he added, the actual operation of such a mission should be studied in greater detail.
Current estimates show that there is about a 1% chance that a 100-meter-wide asteroid will hit Earth in the next 100 years, said Professor Gareth Collins at Imperial College London.
“Something the size of the Bennu collision is about 10 times less likely,” Collins said.
Altering the path of an asteroid presents less risk than blowing up the rock with nuclear explosives, which can create smaller fragments without changing their course, scientists say.
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