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Interactive video lesson plan for: 5 Ways to Stop a Killer Asteroid | What the Stuff?!

Activity overview:

From nuclear weapons to gas eruptions, what will be the most reliable method for saving the planet from a killer asteroid?

10 Ways to Stop a Killer Asteroid:

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Song Attribution:
"Tension Is Rising" by The Insider

According to the astronomer Phil Plait, an asteroid just 6 miles wide is big enough to completely wipe out humankind. Now imagine astronomers discover TODAY that a planet-killer-sized asteroid is bearing down on Earth. Could we stop it? How?

Nuclear Weapons. The obvious choice: Nuke it from orbit. But this time it’s _not_ the only way to be sure. Because, hitting an asteroid dead-on with a nuclear warhead might simply break one huge asteroid into a few smaller fragments that still hit Earth. A better idea might be to detonate a nuke NEAR the asteroid, pushing it to one side or another so its trajectory changes and it ultimately misses our planet.

Kinetic Energy. Even more old-fashioned than the nuke is the kinetic impact. Basically, you deflect the incoming object by slamming another incoming object into it. Scientists have done this before. In 2005, the “Deep Impact” mission (I see what you did there NASA…) altered the trajectory of a comet by hitting it with an 816-pound probe flying at 5 miles per second.

Solar sails. We could simply let the sun blow the asteroid away. A solar sail takes advantage of radiation pressure: the slight push of the sun’s energy against a reflective surface. If we have enough lead time, we could send out probes to cover the asteroid with mirrored sails, foil or reflective paint and let the sun push it away over the course of several decades. Researchers in Beijing came up with this plan in 2011 to redirect the Apophis asteroid.

A gravitational tractor. All objects with mass have gravity – even an object as small as a spacecraft. So if you put a heavy enough probe in a close orbit around an asteroid, the gravity of the probe would slowly pull the asteroid off course, like a tractor pulling a heavy trailer. British company EADS Astrium started developing one of these probes in 2009. Just remember, this method also depends on a long forewarning before collision.

Steam it. Many asteroids contain frozen substances. With some intense heat these can be made to melt—or evaporate. By aiming a high-powered laser or focusing the sunlight with angled mirrors at one side of the asteroid, some scientists think they can cause frozen parts of the asteroid to erupt into gas jets that will act like rocket propellant, pushing the asteroid in the opposite direction.

What do you think is the best way to stop a killer asteroid? Let us know in the comments and subscribe! And for more on everything from asteroid mining to launching solar sails, visit us at howstuffworks.com.

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