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BU astronomers plot to save the world from asteroids

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  October 18, 2013 08:55 AM

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You know it will happen eventually: An Armageddon-sized asteroid will zero in on Earth, threatening to wipe humanity from the planet. Thankfully, though, a team of astronomers at BU is already plotting countermeasures. In a well-illustrated article published yesterday in BU Today, astronomer Jeffrey Hughes runs through a couple asteroid-prevention strategies (none of which actually involve missiles or dynamite because, contra Bruce Willis, blowing up an asteroid would just turn it into birdshot, with all the pieces still hurtling toward Earth). A better approach, Hughes explains in two animated YouTube videos (below), would be to try to nudge a killer asteroid off its collision course, either by heating it with a laser or radio waves (which would cause jets of propulsive gas to release from the asteroid), or with a rocket that bumps (but doesn't break) the asteroid into a friendlier orbit.

Sounds great, right? But then Hughes drops the other shoe. "The downside to all of these," he narrates in one of the videos, "is how are they technically possible and how likely are they to succeed if you do it." So, we're not there quite yet. But the best news of all from the BU article is that dangerous asteroids are rare. Asteroids big enough to trigger an extinction event only come along once every ten million years or so; smaller, "city-killer" asteroids, threaten Earth about every 1,000 years, but even those are much more likely to land in the wilderness than the middle of Cambridge Common.

Using lasers or radio waves to save the world from asteroids

Using rockets to save the world from asteroids

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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