We Already Have the Technology to Save Earth From a “Don’t Look Up” Asteroid

Near Earth Asteroid Animation

What if a 10 km (6.5 mile)-wide asteroid was on a bee-line towards Earth, with an impending, calamitous impact just six months away? This was the scenario in the recent Netflix film, “Don’t Look Up.” The movie has led many to wonder if we have the resources and technology ready and available today to avert such a disaster.

A new paper looking at the technical aspects of such an endeavor says yes. Yes, we do.

“We show that humanity has crossed a technological threshold to prevent us from ‘going the way of the dinosaurs’,” wrote Philip Lubin and Alex Cohen, researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara, in their paper posted reecntly on Arxiv. “We show that mitigation is conceivable using existing technology, even with the short time scale of 6 months warning.”

As a cautionary note, they added that the dinosaurs “never took a physics class and failed to fund planetary defense.”

Don't Look Up

Don’t Look Up (L to R) Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky. Credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix © 2021asteroid gif

Similar to articles we’ve published previously on Universe Today, this new paper looks at several different ways that have been devised to divert an asteroid, but they focus mainly on various explosive penetrators for the “Pulverize It” (PI) method.

The duo concludes that the most effective method of pulverizing is using small nuclear explosive devices (NED) in the penetrators. This, combined with soon-to-be-realized heavy lift launch assets such as NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) or SpaceX’s Starship (with in-orbit refueling) is sufficient to mitigate this existential threat.

This method would not completely obliterate an asteroid – which is virtually impossible for an asteroid that size. But it would vaporize part of the asteroid’s surface, generating an explosive thrust and a change in velocity in response. This would change the asteroid’s path, hopefully diverting it from hitting our planet.

Asteroid Impact on Earth

Artist’s impression of an asteroid impact on early Earth. Credit: SwRI/Don Davis

That we have the technology available today is actually not a controversial opinion. We have discussed the topic with Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart – who helped found the asteroid research organization B612. Schweickart has emphasized that the technology needed to divert an asteroid exists today.

“That is, we do not have to go into a big technology development program in order to deflect most asteroids that would pose a threat of impact,” he said, but added that the technology had not been put together in a system design, or tested and demonstrated that it could actually deflect an asteroid.

But that is about to change. Late last year, NASA launched the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the first-ever planetary defense test mission. It will demonstrate that a spacecraft can autonomously navigate to and perform a kinetic impact on a relatively small target asteroid. This will test if this is a viable technique to deflect a genuinely dangerous asteroid.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Spacecraft

Artist’s impression of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft speeding toward the smaller of the two bodies in the Didymos asteroid system. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

While a “planet killer” event is quite rare, of order once per 100 million years, it is likely a matter of when, not if.

The paper by Lubin and Cohen notes that a threat of this magnitude hitting the Earth at a closing speed of 40 km/s would have an impact energy of roughly 300 Teratons TNT, or about 40 thousand times larger than the current combined nuclear arsenal of the entire world.

“This is similar in energy to the KT extinction event that killed the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago. Such an event, if not mitigated, would be an existential threat to humanity,” they said. “We show that mitigation is conceivable using existing technology, even with the short time scale of 6 months warning, but that the efficient coupling of the NED energy is critical.

In a thought experiment, they also looked at what would be needed to divert an asteroid the size of Texas, approximately 830 km diameter. This is about the size of the dwarf planet Ceres.

“What do you do now?” they asked. “You are going to need some die hard to get you out of this one. A couple of options: a) party, b) move to Mars or the Moon to party, c) do what they did in Chicken Run during take-off.”

Kidding aside, they said the purpose of their paper was to show that even in relatively extreme short-term warning cases we’d have the ability to respond, but only if we prepare – which Schweickart and B612 have repeatedly and vociferously advocated.

“Though the numbers may seem daunting, it is not outside the realm of possibility even at this point in human technological development,” Lubin and Cohen said. “This gives us hope that a robust planetary defense system is possible for even short notice existential threats such as we have outlined. Ideally, we would never be in this situation, but better ready than dead.”

Originally published on Universe Today.

25 Comments on "We Already Have the Technology to Save Earth From a “Don’t Look Up” Asteroid"

  1. Interesting.

    Good to Know that we are at least thinking about a potential Planet Extinction event vide a asteroid 10 Km in Size and one the size of Texas.

    The simplest and most obvious solution to the problem is in front of our eyes , but which needs to be re-invented with a litte bit of “out of the box thinking” about current Physics Knowledge.

    Let us look at Magnetism. Like Poles repel . Unlike poles attract. This much we know.

    Magnetism is the result of alignment of matter. It is readily visbe in Ferrous material. It can also be induced in other materail. This is also known. Asteroidsare matter.

    There is Matter and there is Anti-Matter. If there is Gravity , there has to be a force called Anti Gravity. Applicationof such an anti-gravitational force on the Asteroid can be a useful technology.
    We don’t need no NED (Nuclear Explosive Device) to solve such a threat. We need edcuation the STEM Kind and Stem Cell Kind.

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.

    Reimagining Science and questioning assumptions about what we can and cannot do, is a critical skill to be learnt by future Generations. Technology is the application of such scientific knowledge for creation of the new new thing!

    • There is no evidence whatsoever of antigravity. And there are solid theoretical reasons to think that there can’t be – e.g. if anitgravity existed, one could build perpetual motion machines.

  2. Viktor Vasylyev | January 31, 2022 at 2:37 am | Reply

    As a PhD in physics and astronomy, it is clear to me that the giant paper by Lubin and Cohen is rather a science fiction (like to previous published laser approach with the fundamental impossibility of high-power lasers cooling in space). This is because it does not contain the main thing, namely a detailed analysis of the explosion consequences. The matter is that almost all NEAs are not monolithic “rogue rock». Given the results of last direct study, it has become clear that they are essentially natural space debris, fragments of which are held together by gravity and cohesion – “flying gravel- rubble-boulder piles” (i.e. loose and crambly through and through, not just on the surface). Such internal structure will completely block momentum delivery to the asteroid as a whole, similarly to the perfectly inelastic collision. It is because that a shock wave arising from an impact/explosive (together with material escaping) decays and dissipates fast enough, wasting all its energy on heating and redistribution of different sized rock fragments. For a similar reason, the impact method is also inefficient despite the unprecedented PR of the DART mission.
    Therefore, the optimum way is to have a specific and sufficiently sized solar-concentrating structure, which is ready to transportation toward the asteroid (and appropriate-sized comet nuclei especially!)
    and operate – see: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11038-012-9410-2
    as well as relevant section in the Wikipedia (“Asteroid impact avoidance – Use of focused solar energy”).

  3. The premise of this article and cited paper is utterly ludicrous: mitigation of extinction level events is a technological problem. What climate change revealed and COVID-19 has proved, is that mitigating human extinction is, in fact, a POLITICAL problem.

    It is almost a certainty that, we humans (collectively, thanks Facebook!), will spend more time ARGUING about the threat and related costs (money and liberty) than actually dealing with it.

    What a bunch of morons!

    • Spot on. That’s the point of the movie

    • This is good information, it means there’s no point in wasting energy on studies like this or technological mitigations. Since the problem is purely political and there’s nothing we can do about that but argue let’s just resign ourselves to our fate. Good work, I guess the same applies to Climate Change as well!

  4. What's the frequency, Kenneth? | January 31, 2022 at 6:28 am | Reply

    If they plan to stop astroids, they better use empirical science—meaning, they better start deflecting some astroids and paying attention to what unexpected things happen. Archimedes thought you could just learn from nature without empiricism. That’s a dangerous game that runs the risk of failing, or worse, creating a greater disaster.

  5. If you know about it early enough, and make a decision to do something early, we likely already have the tech. You don’t need to fracture it…from far enough away, even a small deflection is enough for it to miss.
    The point of Don’t Look Up was less about the tech than about the politics, and I also have less confidence there.

  6. Schaedenfreude | January 31, 2022 at 7:15 am | Reply

    The author clearly did not watch the movie, “Don’t Look Up”. In the movie, we had the technology to deflect the asteroid. Corporate greed interfered with the deflection attempt and ultimately doomed the planet. It was a perfect metaphor for covidiots and the MAGA crowd.

    Corporate greed killed the planet, not the asteroid.

    • What a weird comparison.

      In your world are “covidiots and the MAGA crowd” the ones that are on the side of the greedy corporations and corrupt governments? They are the ones supporting big-pharma and big-tech in bed with big-government without concerns or questions?

      No, no, you could never be wrong.

      • There’s two separate issues. One is too much power for big companies, pharma and tech being obvious examples. Both parties are equally guilty on this front.
        Second is an anti-science agenda. The Trump wing of the GOP is particularly guilty on this front.

        • Questioning “science” is not wrong. It is not a religion that needs to be taken on faith.

          If it can’t survive questioning, can’t be explained, and can’t be replicated, it isn’t really science…just the fake “science” that Hollywood and the left talk about.

          Censorship, hiding results you don’t like, and setting up biased studies to get the results you want is not “science” and arguing against that is not anti-science.

          Politicians of both parties are bought by the deep pockets of big corporations, but don’t act like it isn’t 10 times worse on the Democrat side. Now cutting through the politicians and going to the ideology, the root cause of this problem is big government, and Democrats are all for that.

          Pfizer hiding negative results of their vaccine studies and government letting them get away with it is a huge problem, replicated a million times in similar ways across industries. Jim-Bob posting to facebook that he won’t take a vaccine because of magnets is something of no consequence. Focus a little of your attention at the former, instead of acting like the latter is the end of the world.

  7. Literalists the movie is a metaphor for what is happening vis a vis climate change not asteroids the planet doesn’t care about climate change, but we need to care

  8. Almost 30 years ago, Carl Sagan did an interview where he criticized mankinds’ goal of colonizing Mars. He stated that Mars is simply a wistful dream, whereas the event of an asteroid hitting our planet is a certain reality.
    I agree with him completely. While we might have our wonderful fictional “Don’t Look Up’s” and “Armageddon” movies for entertainment, the money we are wasting on Mars would most definitely benefit mankind many times over…at the minimum would be a big headstart to prolonging life here as we know it.
    But that would mean using common sense…a rare commodity these days.

  9. David-Paul Newton-Scott | January 31, 2022 at 8:27 am | Reply

    All you have to do is impart momentum to the whole body of the asteroid ie not point loading it like nuking it. So all you need to do is hit it with a neutron bomb or many. A large object is tough to move but has the advantage of being spotted early. Smaller objects harder to spot but more likely to be city busters not the end of humanity. If an asteroid was on course to take out Paris for example in three months its citizens could simply leisurely walk out of yhe city.

  10. The film “Don’t Look Up” is an allegory about climate change, not necessarily a comet crashing into the planet. It is satire on the denial, politics and science in relation to the warming of the planet, COVID and the lies being told to the public for the sake of money and re-election of unscrupulous individuals. Meryl Streep’s president and family is obviously influenced by Trump, his family and his politics. Check out the interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about the film.

  11. Gregory A Peterson | January 31, 2022 at 11:09 am | Reply

    CALL BRUCE WILLIS!!!!! he can fix it….

  12. wasn’t this movie really just a metaphor for climate change denial?

  13. Brent Van Allen | January 31, 2022 at 4:32 pm | Reply

    GIF is funny here, it is mirror reversed. That is Washington, Vancouver Island, and the coast of Oregon…but East West directions are reversed.

  14. Plutarch Heavensbee | January 31, 2022 at 7:44 pm | Reply

    We also have the idiots that will keep us from saving it

  15. That’s not really the point of the movie though. The asteroid and the “don’t look up” people are actually a metaphor for climate change, denial of it and the apathy toward it. I thought it was at best a rather blunt metaphor if not downright hamfisted, but if it’s getting people more worried about a catastrophic impact rather than climate change itself, then I guess it wasn’t blunt *enough*. Given the point of the movie is that too many people aren’t motivated to combat climate change, it’s ironic that people are missing that same point in favor of worrying about something that might not even happen for centuries.

  16. Cynthia Binder | February 1, 2022 at 7:08 am | Reply

    Read article great,nasa n Dart we have liftoff. Its all real,do jobs,families, govt,business services for staying alive…. stopping a deadly event before it happens,????.technology is by science. Science is saying to ;another to decisions makers,trust who exactly??? Thankfully some people do their JOBS…hair-raising questions are give me evidence.🏁♨️❄🤓 An should I truth is staring back at humanity. Bless you 🍕 time👽👾🤖

  17. … then comes a bigger one, look we don’t. Hope, it wont be received as a serious comment… probably it will be erased, though…

  18. And another article completely missing the point of “Don’t Look Up”

    – I went to the past to warn them, but they already knew and didn’t care

  19. The movie pointed out our apathy toward existential threats. This article makes unfortunately very similar “assumptions” as portrayed in the movie. NEVER assume someone has it all figured out because they don’t. Always push for a proven solution. Currently we earthlings do not have a tested and proven method of diverting asteroids at any distance from earth, only theoretical methods. The movie was a wakeup call. Let’s be sure to heed that call.

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