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Surprising Science

How a Nuclear Bomb Would Stop an Asteroid

Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have simulated exploding a one-megaton nuclear bomb against an asteroid 500 meters in diameter. The results are encouraging. 

What’s the Latest Development?

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the nuclear weapon was first engineered, is running complex computer software to hedge against a worst case scenario for our planet: The discovery of an asteroid with an Earth-bound trajectory just months away from impact. Los Alamos scientists were encouraged by their findings that a one-megaton blast would disrupt all the rocks in an asteroid 500 meters in diameter. There might still remain the risk, however, that those smaller chuncks would fall to Earth with harmful consequences. 

What’s the Big Idea?

The nuclear option is one of last resort, say workers at Los Alamos. Given more time to divert an asteroid’s path, a spacecraft could be launched to travel alongside the space rock, gently changing its trajectory by using gravity. Over months or years, scientists could predictably alter the asteroid’s path away from Earth. Another potential solution is a direct impact, slamming a satellite into the surface of the asteroid, much like the impactor which NASA sent hurtling at comet Tempel 1. The trajectory of an asteroid after such an impact, however, would be harder to predict. 

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