Texas A&M researchers: Paint can deflect threatening asteroid

March 1, 2013 5:11:25 AM PST
Earlier this month, 1,200 people were hurt when a meteor exploded over the skies of Russia. They blew up with the force of 20 atomic bombs. But what if something even bigger was headed straight from Earth? Well scientists at A&M University say they know exactly what it will take to deflect an approaching asteroid -- paint.

Hollywood has grand ideas for destroying asteroids.

"There's a danger to doing that," Texas A&M University researcher Dr. David Hyland said.

Researchers suggest a much more subtle approach. At Texas A&M University, for example, they think simply painting an asteroid might be enough to save the world.

"The prime directive in all this is to do no harm," Hyland said.

Using a modified spray gun and powdered paint -- much like is used to coat electronic and automotive parts -- researchers think they can actually change the course of a killer asteroid.

"We're simply taking a technique that exists on Earth and adopting it in space," researcher Shen Ge said.

Their work is timely.

Earlier this month, an asteroid skirted between Earth and the moon, narrowly avoiding us. Then a meteor exploded above Russia, injuring hundreds and causing serious damage to buildings.

The idea is to launch a small spacecraft, one outfitted with a spray gun. Once close enough to the asteroid, it would spray that paint along its equator with either a white or a black paint, changing the reflectivity of it.

"Each little particle of light carries a certain kick, a certain momentum," Hyland said.

So the energy coming off it is deflecting it over time, and its course would change enough for it to avoid a collision with Earth.

Dr. Hyland and his team of student researchers at A&M are trying to get NASA to support a test of this concept as another asteroid is already bearing down on Earth. It is forecast to make a too-close-for-comfort flyby on a Friday the 13th in 2029, and it will come even closer again seven years later.

"An impact event in 2036 cannot at this time be ruled out," Dr. Hyland said. "I believe we need as many tools in our toolbox as possible."

Successfully changing the course of an asteroid this way, however, would require time, planning and analysis.

"How important is it that we figure out a way to make this work?" we asked Dr. Hyland.

"Well, how important is it to have a planet to live on?" he said.

That way, we can avoid something seen a Hollywood movie as a last resort.

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