Within decades, the world’s leaders may be forced to grapple with a momentous decision: whether and how to deflect an incoming object. Few experts are giving this much thought, says astronomer David Morrison of NASA’s Ames Research Center: “The number would roughly staff a couple shifts at a McDonald’s.”
Lu, the former astronaut, is one. Now an executive at Google, he is helping design a massive database for a successor to Pan-STARRS, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will scrutinize the sky in even more detail starting in 2014. Lu is also the coauthor of a scheme for using a spacecraft to coax an earthbound asteroid off its dangerous path. “We were originally thinking about how you would land on an asteroid and push it,” he says. "But that doesn't work well." If the surface is crumbly, the lander might skid off. Moreover, asteroids twirl through space. "If you're pushing and the thing is rotating, the pushing just cancels out," Lu says.
Then he and Stanley Love, a fellow astronaut, realized pulling would be much easier. A spacecraft could hover nearby and fire its thrusters, gently tugging the asteroid along. No harpooning or lassoing would be required. "Rather than having a physical line between you and the thing you're towing, you're just using the force of gravity between them," Lu says. The "gravity tractor" would tug the asteroid off course at a mere fraction of a mile an hour. But this subtle shift, magnified over the vastness of space, could mean missing Earth by tens of thousands of miles.
Lu's scheme would work only for asteroids up to a few hundred yards across that could be engaged far from Earth. If a small rock sneaks up on us, we could try ramming it with a spacecraft. But there's a drawback, says Morrison: "If you hit an asteroid with enough energy to break it apart, but not necessarily enough energy to disperse it widely, you now have a flying collection of stuff. You have to ask how practical that is." When all else fails, and for large asteroids and comets, only one strategy has a chance of working: We'll have to bomb them back to the Stone Age.
Stands of frosted firs and white birch cluster along the highway leading southwest from Yekaterinburg, the city in the Ural Mountains where Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were murdered 90 years ago. Under a dull sun, fishermen huddle over holes on a frozen lake, floppy-eared fur hats hiding their faces. A road with a misspelled signpost for a tiny village marks the turnoff for the formerly secret city of Snezhinsk, code-named Chelyabinsk-70 during the Cold War. Snezhinsk is home to one of Russia's two main nuclear weapons laboratories. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it fell on hard times; ten years ago, with Russia's economy in shambles, staff salaries went unpaid, and the director committed suicide.