Engage tractors

Picture the scene; an asteroid is discovered on a collision course with the Earth. What do we do? The usual suggestion is to follow the bad example set by Hollywood asteroid films and blow it up. As Phil Plait describes, this is a bad idea. It is much better to give the asteroid a nudge several years before it gets to us. Even a little nudge, long enough in advance, can put it a safe distance from the Earth. The only trouble is with how to apply a nudge to a spinning, rubble like mass of dirty ice or rock.

Recently EPSRC - the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - began a study of ways to deflect near Earth objects (NEOs). The latest edition of ABC Radio National's Science Show (a podcast is available) discusses one possibility that EPSRC may consider; using the attractive nature of gravity. The suggestion is for a massive spacecraft to go and sit next to a NEO which will then be attracted to the spacecraft (and vice versa) via gravity. The spacecraft then uses angled thrusters to slowly move in a direction away from the asteroid, dragging it along without ever needing to make contact with the surface. The resulting space tractor would tow asteroids out of harms way albeit very slowly.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 14th Nov 2005 (19:54 UTC) | Permalink
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