Space Laser Takes Aim At Future Asteroids

By Joann Fan email: , Feb 18, 2013 12:38 PM EST

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the popular astrophysicist on par with Bill Nye for his ability to reach the masses, once said, "If humans one day become extinct from a catastrophic collision, we would be the laughing stock of aliens in the galaxy, for having a large brain and a space program, yet we met the same fate as that pea-brained, space program-less dinosaurs that came before us."

Scientists at UC Santa Barbara aren't having any of that.

A meteor recently exploded over Russia and an asteroid roughly half the size of a football field flew within 17,200 miles of the Earth, coming closer than the ring of geosynchronous satellites in orbit around our planet. The risk of close shaves and actual impact will not decrease anytime soon, for this planet that was shaped by meteor collisions early in its history and still experiences several thousand smaller hits a day, though most objects burn up in the atmosphere.

On Thursday Feb. 14, a day before both the meteor explosion and asteroid fly-by, UC Santa Barbara professors Philip M. Lubin and Gary B. Hughes announced DE-STAR, or the "Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids an exploRation" as a possible way to deflect or mitigate the threat of a collision. It is designed to harness solar energy in an array of laser beams directed at an oncoming object and destroy or evaporate any potential threat. This could also change the trajectory of an object by heating one side: As the meteor or asteroid radiates heat, it will be pushed in the other direction in a phenomenon called the Yarkovsky effect.

The DE-STAR project is based both on technology available today and reasonable expectations of future developments. "All the components of this system pretty much exist today," Hughes said in a press release, although he stresses that scaling up the technology to a level where it would be effective against a 2012 DA14-sized threat is the main difficulty. The system could also potentially act as an aid in planetary exploration. Larger systems could accomplish more: a DE-STAR about 10 kilometers in diameter, 100 times the size of the International Space Station, could potentially annihilate an asteroid 500 meters across in one year.

Other attempts to to mitigate the threat of an asteroid-collision-induced apocalypse include an early-warning system from NASA.

In 1908, a meteor or small comet exploded over Siberia and leveled 80 million trees in the Tunguska event. Five thousand years ago, an object fell into the Indian Ocean and caused a tsunami that could be the source of several "Great Flood" legends. The Chicxulub crater off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula was caused by an impact that many scientists now believe pushed dinosaurs over the edge of extinction. Hopefully, we'll be ready for the next one.

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