Paint the heavens: Diverting an asteroid may take a broad brush

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Back in the '60s, the Rolling Stones sang that we should "Paint It Black." They may be one of the world's greatest rock bands, but they don't know anything about deflecting asteroids.

If they had named the song "Paint It White," they may have been on to something.

Sung Wook Paek, an MIT graduate student, won the 2012 Move an Asteroid Technical Competition held by the United Nations' Space Generation Advisory Council with a novel idea for diverting the next killer asteroid that hurtles our way. He presented his theory to scientists last month.

Because an asteroid is too massive to destroy with nuclear weapons without shattering it into thousands of fragments that would endanger Earth, Mr. Paek has devised a far less violent, but more effective solution: cover the surface of the asteroid with reflective white paint delivered by clouds of solid white pellets. Solar radiation pressure would then exert a force on the asteroid's newly reflective surface that would gently nudge it out of an Earth-bound trajectory.

That's the theory Mr. Paek tested by running simulations on the asteroid Apophis, a 27-gigaton monster that will fly by Earth in 2029 and 2036. According to his calculations, it will require a mere five tons of paint delivered in two rounds of the white pellets to cover the spinning asteroid.

It won't be the prettiest paint job in the universe, but it will deflect Apophis from its trajectory after 20 years of solar radiation pressure and drag.

Scientists are intrigued by the logic and elegance of the Paek theory. It would still require split-second timing and international cooperation, but it could be done. In theory, humans would have a few decades before a threatened impact to refine the idea further, but it is already more promising than the expected blowback from using a nuclear strike.

Plus, Mick and Keith won't mind the irony of painting the rolling stones headed our way white. When it comes to saving the planet, you can't always get what you want.

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