BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese researchers plan to send more than 20 of China’s largest rockets to practice diverting a large asteroid, a technique that could eventually prove important as the deadly rocks come on a collision course with Earth.
The idea is more than just science fiction. Sometime between late 2021 and early 2022, the United States will launch a robotic spacecraft to intercept two asteroids relatively close to Earth.
When it arrives a year later, NASA’s spacecraft will land on the smaller of the two rocky bodies to see how much the asteroid’s path has changed. It would be humanity’s first attempt to change the course of a celestial body.
At the National Space Center in China, researchers found in simulations that the simultaneous launch of 23 Long March 5 rockets could deflect a large asteroid from its original course by 1.4 times the radius of Earth.
Their calculations are based on an asteroid called Bennu, which orbits the sun and is about as wide as the Empire State Building. It belongs to a class of rocks that can cause regional or continental damage. Asteroids extending more than a kilometer long will have global impacts.
The Science Center cited a study recently published in Icarus, the journal of Planetary Science.
Long-range Mars 5 missiles are central to China’s short-term aviation ambitions — from supplying space station modules to launching sensors to the moon and Mars. China has successfully launched six Long March 5 missiles since 2016, the last of which has caused some security concerns. The remains were released back into the atmosphere in May.
“The proposal to keep the upper stage of a launcher on a conductive spacecraft and to have a ‘large kinetic collider’ deflecting an asteroid is a rather fascinating concept,” said Professor Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University Belfast Astrophysics Research Center.
“By increasing the mass hitting the asteroid, simple physics should have a much greater impact,” Fitzsimmons told Reuters, though he added that the actual workings of such a mission needed to be studied in more detail.
Professor Gareth Collins of Imperial College London said current estimates show there is a 1% chance that a 100-meter-wide asteroid will hit Earth in the next 100 years.
“Something the size of a Bennu collision is 10 times less likely,” Collins said.
Scientists say changing the asteroid’s path is less dangerous than blasting the rock with nuclear explosives, which can create smaller fragments without changing its course.
(Reporting by Ryan Wu). Additional reporting by Liangping Zhao. Editing by Jerry Doyle
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