The impact of a recent meteor explosion over Russia is being felt throughout the world, as the event has sparked a global debate about how to protect the planet from future near-Earth space objects.
Although some of that debate has involved blowing up asteroids before they can destroy life as we know it, a less risky option is to simply divert the rock's trajectory and let it continue flowing through space.
That's exactly the strategy that researchers at Johns Hopkins University intend to test out over the next decade. Scientists from the school's Applied Physics Laboratory are planning a multi-year, $350-million project that will involve shooting a rocket into an asteroid dubbed Didymos and throwing it off-course while it passes Earth.
"There is a science aspect to it and a planetary defense aspect to it," said Andy Cheng, the chief scientist of the physics laboratory in Laurel, in an interview with the Washington Post.
The asteroid isn't scheduled to pass the planet until 2021, so researchers have plenty of time to develop their plan. If it manages to work, the event would make history by being the first time humans have ever directly affected an asteroid's trajectory.
Fortunately, even if history isn't made that day, humans will have future opportunities to get things right. Didymos isn't on a crash-course with Earth in the first place, and is expected to pass the planet at a distance of 6.5 million miles away
"It is important to note that the target Didymos is not an Earth-crossing asteroid, and there is no prospect that the deflection experiment would create an impact hazard," read the agency's report.
Both NASA and the European Space Agency support the plan. NASA will help launch the rocket intended to make contact with the asteroid, while the ESA would launch a separate craft to determine the project's success or failure.
Knocking an asteroid off-course doesn't quite have the visceral pull of blowing it up, but in practice it seems to be the easier, safer and most efficient option. Attempting to blow up an asteroid before it hits the Earth could simply make the situation harder to deal with. Instead of having to face down a single object, the world could be left coping with multiple asteroid fragments travelling towards the Earth at the same speed.