Battling rogue asteroids with laser-powered satellite swarms

Credit: NBCUniversal

With so much news coming from the asteroid capture and determent sector, we're starting to think that there's something somebody isn't telling us. It was only last month that new details surfaced about the EU's plans to redirect massive asteroids with suicidal satellites. This month, the asteroid redirection plan is even more awesome, because that's what happens to a plan when you add lasers to it.

Yes, that's right, the new plan is to attack wayward asteroids with lasers. Well, the plan isn't exactly new. It's more of a refinement. Originally proposed at the very same University in Scotland that has recently developed diamond-based lasers, the initial plan was to launch a swarm of laser-equipped satellites at an asteroid. Once in the vicinity of the offending space rock, they would fire upon it at close range, using the resulting heating to change the asteroid's trajectory.

Let's fast forward one year's time to the present day. A second team of scientists, this time Americans from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), have reviewed the University of Strathclyde's research. Not only is the new team on board with the concept, they've gone ahead and refined it and pitched the whole thing to NASA. If their research is found to be valid, the UAH team believe that the newly designed laser satellite swarm would be capable of pushing aside celestial objects as large as comets.

So here's what's new: instead of a fleet of laser-equipped satellites, the team at UAH has proposed a single high-powered laser, housed within a sort of mothership satellite. Also within the mothership would dwell a swarm of nano-satellites. Once a threat was detected, the mothership would roll up and loose its minions upon the hapless asteroid.

The nano-satellites would be put into orbit around the space rock. Once in orbit, these little guys would 3D map the asteroid, sending data back to the mothership, which would pinpoint the areas most susceptible to laser blasts. Then the mothership would open fire, bouncing the light from nano-sat to nano-sat and striking the asteroid precisely where it's weakest. According to Dr. Richard Fork, who came up with this concept way back in the 1980s, such a precision attack upon an asteroid could do a lot to push it out of harm's way:

"One pulse, during the brief time the propulsive force is applied, provides as much power as all three Space Shuttle main engines when they are firing together."

After each blast, the nano-satellites would send new data concerning the asteroid's surface to the mothership, which would also be tracking the rock's new trajectory. Multiple blasts would be used to further redirect the asteroid, thus saving humanity. And Bruce Willis isn't even necessary.

University of Alabama in Huntsville, via Gizmag

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