The Planetary Society, founded by Carl Sagan and currently headed by Bill Nye, is keeping a sharp eye on the skies. The group has the stated mission to “Create a better future by exploring other worlds and understanding our own.” But they are also looking out for asteroids that might threaten the Earth’s personal space, and they are actively planning out what to do when they find one.
Their mission is simple: avert Armageddon using the best possible research. Member scientists have been working on solutions for quite some time now and just yesterday they released some preview literature of their asteroid-fighting weapons: Laser Bees.
Unfortunately, this does not mean genetically altered bees with laser-beam stingers and the ability to fly through space (though that would be a great SyFy movie plot).
It does mean a swarm of small spacecraft equipped with lasers which would blast the incoming asteroid, altering it’s course to a non-Earth-obliterating path. It’s a popular line of inquiry, and other groups are also working on laser beam powered asteroid-diverting solutions.
From the Planetary Society’s Bruce Betts:
Both the technical paper and the poster report on their progress in measuring the zapping of rocks in a vacuum chamber with a high-powered laser. They measure various things like temperature at the spot the laser hits the rock, the development of the hole caused by the laser, the development of the plume of vaporized rock, and the deposition on materials in the chamber. All of this allows them to improve models of what would happen if you used a spacecraft (or multiple spacecraft) with an even higher powered laser to zap a dangerous asteroid to move it to a safe orbit. Bottom line: their measurements went well and have provided insights into changes to be made to the conceptual model. And they noticed not just rock vapor comes out of the hole, but also unvaporized rock kicked out by the vaporizing rock — another thing to account for in understanding the process. A new round of experiments will be run later this summer that will provide different measurements on a variety of materials.