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Nuke that asteroid! Is that a good idea?

Dec. 20, 2023.
3 min. read 14 Interactions

The potential consequences of a large asteroid impact could be devastating

About the Writer

Amara Angelica

184.69491 MPXR

Amara Angelica is Senior Editor, Mindplex

Dimorphos, the moon of the asteroid Didymos, before impact by the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (credit: Andrew S. Rivkin et al )

Situation: An asteroid is heading toward Earth. Scientists calculate that deflecting the asteroid to defend the planet against catastrophic impact with a conventional kinetic impact will not work. Why? Limitations in the mass that can be lifted to space.

Solution: Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) say they have developed a modeling tool for assessing the potential use of a nuclear device. The research, published today (Dec. 19, 2023) in Planetary Science Journal, introduces a novel approach to simulating the energy deposition from a nuclear device on an asteroid’s surface.

This new tool improves our understanding of the nuclear deflection’s radiation interactions on the asteroid’s surface. It also opens the door to new research on the shockwave dynamics affecting the inner asteroid.

This model will allow researchers to build upon the insights gained from NASA’s recent Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission in Sept. 2022, when they deliberately crashed a nuclear device into an asteroid to alter its trajectory.

DART Animated Infographic

Nuclear devices have the highest ratio of energy density per unit of mass of any human technology, making them an invaluable tool in mitigating asteroid threats, said LLNL physicist Mary Burkey, who led the research.

A long-range decision: to smash or deflect?

“If we have enough warning time, we could potentially launch a nuclear device, sending it millions of miles away to an asteroid that is headed toward Earth,” Burkey said. “We would then detonate the device and either deflect the asteroid, keeping it intact but providing a controlled push away from Earth, or we could disrupt the asteroid, breaking it up into small, fast-moving fragments that would also miss the planet.”

Accurate predictions for the effectiveness of nuclear deflection missions rely on sophisticated multiphysics simulations, Burkey said, explaining that LLNL simulation models cover a wide range of physical factors, which makes them complex and computationally demanding.

Asteroid x-rays

The paper also introduces an efficient and accurate library of X-ray energy deposition functions. High-fidelity simulations tracked photons penetrating surfaces of asteroid-like materials such as rock, iron, and ice, while accounting for more complex processes, such as reradiation.

The model also considers a diverse set of initial conditions, including different porosities, source spectra, radiation fluences, source durations, and angles of incidence. This comprehensive approach makes the model applicable to a wide range of potential asteroid scenarios. 

High-fidelity simulation modeling

Should a real planetary defense emergency arise, high-fidelity simulation modeling will be critical in providing decision-makers with actionable, risk-informed information that could prevent asteroid impact, protect essential infrastructure and save lives, explained Megan Bruck Syal, LLNL’s planetary defense project lead.

“While the probability of a large asteroid impact during our lifetime is low, the potential consequences could be devastating,” Bruck Syal said.

Citation: Mary T. Burke, Robert A. Managan, Nicholas A. Gentile, Megan Bruck Syal, Kirsten M. Howley and Joseph V. Wasem. December 19, 2023. Planetary Science Journal, Vol. 4, Number 12. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/PSJ/ad0838 (open access).

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9 Comments

9 thoughts on “Nuke that asteroid! Is that a good idea?

  1. Oi, mate! If planting bombs on asteroids is the new craze, Elon Musk's got a Tesla-powered rocket for the job. No promises on finding volunteers, though – reckon the two-way rocket system might need a bit of Dutch courage. And if that fails and the rocket's only one way, no fuzz – Vodka is good enough! And to our Russian pals, start peddling those flashy nukes on sale; Elon's thinking of spicing up the space mission with a dash of Russian flair.

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  2. Nuking anything anywhere is a bad idea. Maybe the Japanese me is speaking here 👣

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  3. I think the mission's impacts on planetary defense tech and the potential for future space exploration strategies. This achievement highlights our evolving ability to manipulate celestial bodies, prompting exploration and protection considerations.

    Are we taking control of the solar system really? It is like the 100 movie series for me.

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  4. Interesting

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  5. Hehe, this gives me a proper Armageddon flashback, mate! 😜I miss Bruce. Nuking an asteroid isn't a walk in the park. Firing a nuke from Earth is chancy 'cause the range is a bit wonky. The range is a bit naff and won't go far out in space, so we'd have to wait for the rock to come a bit too close. If things go tits up, it's kaboom time for our dear Earth. Launching a spaceship, then touching down so the bots can drop the bomb is also dodgy, depending on the nature of the blinking asteroid. Yep, Amara, you highlighted a proper tricky business.

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    1. Very good points, Henderson! Yeah, hey Bruce, where are you now that we need you!  (Armageddon: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120591/) . But remember that Lev Andropov volunteered to plant the bomb on the asteroid -- any volunteers by our Russian readers? :)

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      1. How do you know when a Russian missile is about to launch?

        When you hear the countdown: "Three, two, one, cyka blyat!"


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        1. Before Alamin or Martin jump in, let me balance the prejudice...

          What do you call an American who likes to press the red button?

          A patriot with a trigger finger.

          I know you guys follow me and cause trouble, so I hope you are happy now.

          I have no intention to mock the Russians here or glorify the American exceptionalisms . I am just admiring their courage, and I love the movie Armageddon. Yeah, I have to sound silly because these two fanatics of PC police don't know how to crack jokes.

          P.S. Guys, in truth, I miss you because you two are the only ones who interact actively.


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          1. Be careful of what you wish for! Alamin just jumped in 🤪

            Okay dude, let me be clear here. I am not a PC police and I don't think Martin is either. We just like to point out your irrational Americanism.

            And I don't follow you, but I think you are asking me to do so, and I will 🙃

            The community is quiet here, you see I even agree with you😝, so we bump into each other a lot.

            On a not so related fact, I do like this news. Planetary defense system is cool. Hopefully it won't be used to nuke the less westernized people and culture. I wish I could stay, but dude, you are in the US and I am across the pond and there is a huge time difference.


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