National Nuclear Security Administration

NNSA lab explores options to save Earth from asteroid impact

February 25, 2016

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The threat of potential earth impacts from space objects has been on scientists’ and policymakers’ radar for decades. Now, technologies enabled and driven by the nuclear security enterprise are making improvements to the analysis of possible solutions. New research at NNSA’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) shows that by crashing space vehicles into large objects headed for Earth, the potential devastating effects of impact might be avoided.

LLNL and other NNSA laboratories have partnered with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) planetary defense teams to simulate the effectiveness of asteroid mitigation techniques with 3D modeling, and published their findings in the most recent issue of Icarus.

The work at LLNL elaborates on information from the National Research Council, which said that two options were best for protecting Earth from a potential impact. While either a nuclear device or hitting an asteroid with another object—called kinetic impactor—could throw it off a collision course, the preferred option is non-nuclear. Since crash-testing space vehicles into gigantic space rocks at high speeds is not immediately feasible, LLNL is exploring the idea virtually, which exercises its science in high-performance computing and physics modeling.

In the Icarus paper, LLNL researchers found that many characteristics of an asteroid to be deflected affected success of a kinetic impactor attempt, emphasizing the need for detailed research about the characteristics of potential near-earth objects.

“Asteroids are naturally diverse, and researchers have little direct information about their mechanical properties,” said Megan Bruck Syal, lead author on the paper.

Space agencies across the planet are planning to collaborate on a physical test in space, aiming at the moon of an asteroid called Didymoon in 2022. This event would mark the first time humans measurably altered the dynamics of the solar system.

Read more about LLNL’s role in the kinetic impact research.