‘Armageddon’ is not as science fiction as it seemed: fragmenting an asteroid with a nuclear bomb may be the last defense of the Earth, according to a study
That ‘Armageddon’ has a lot of fiction and little science has been amply commented. Even an astronaut like Chris Hadfield criticized various aspects of the film in a video for Vanity Fair magazine, so amused by what he saw that it was difficult for him to contain his laughter. However, not everything that happened in the film would be pure Hollywood fantasy, at least not now, more than 20 years since the film was released, since a recent study by Johns Hopkins University has concluded that a nuclear strike on a near-Earth asteroid with the aim of fragmenting it could be our planet’s last hope if all else fails.
Different universities and space agencies have spent years studying the possible defense mechanisms that Humanity could use to defend itself from the collision of an asteroid that threatened the Earth. The solutions proposed so far have been several, and it is not the first time that the use of nuclear weapons has been on the table. Of all of them, the favorites of the experts are those that advocate diverting these celestial bodies from the trajectory of the planet. NASA’s DART project and a recently published Chinese study are betting on this path. The reason is simple, if you choose to fragment the rock and the resulting chunks are large enough, they could still cause a lot of damage to the earth’s surface.
But with this tactic, known as an asteroid mitigation strategy, there is a very important conditioner: time. For it to be possible to change the trajectory of a celestial body of these characteristics, it is essential to detect it several years or decades in advance.. If discovered late, the option to zoom out is fading because there won’t be enough space for the detour to be significant. In a simulation carried out by NASA earlier this year, scientists from the US agency tested the possibilities of reacting with this method to an asteroid out of nowhere, detected only six months in advance. The result? 100% chance of impact after trying to alter its trajectory.
For all these reasons, one of the most interesting novelties that the recent study by Johns Hopkins University contributes is that, if it is too late to deflect the asteroid – less than a year for the collision – it would be effective to launch a nuclear device to fragment the rock. The authors of this research simulated the effects of a one-megaton bomb detonated near the surface of an asteroid about 100 meters long. They carried out five tests with different trajectories and in all of them they managed to avoid the impact.
In addition, the simulation has also concluded that, if the explosion is carried out with the appropriate power and at least one month before the impact with our planet, 99% of the asteroid’s mass could be prevented from reaching the Earth’s surface.
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Despite the positive results of the study, the authors emphasize that it is still a simulation and that, therefore, the conclusions must be taken with some caution. If the dimensions of the asteroid, its composition or the power of the bomb vary, the results could be different.
For all this, scientists explain that fragmentation can be a good backup strategy, in case all the others fail and the asteroid is too close to Earth. But, in any case, it will be better to detect these possible dangers by a long margin and exhaust all possible avenues before opting to drop a nuclear bomb on a celestial body so close to the planet.