College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

How Nuclear Bombs Could Save Earth from Killer Asteroids

The most destructive weapon humanity has ever developed could help our species avoid going the way of the dinosaurs.

Pretty much any asteroid that poses a threat to Earth can be blasted out of the heavens using a nuclear bomb, even with warning times of a week or less, say a team of scientists who have been developing the idea.

“We have the solution, using our baseline concept, to be able to mitigate the asteroid-impact threat, with any range of warning,” Bong Wie, professor in aerospace engineering at Iowa State University, said Feb. 6 at the 2014 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) meeting at Stanford University.

Wie and his colleagues are developing a concept spacecraft called the Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle, or HAIV.

The HAIV would rendezvous with an asteroid in deep space, then send a kinetic impactor barreling into the object to blast out a crater. The nuclear bomb would follow one millisecond behind — perhaps attached via a long boom, or perhaps flying freely — and then detonate inside the hole, shattering the asteroid into millions of tiny pieces.

Wie and his team suggest that the HAIV concept be coupled with an asteroid-warning system, such as the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), a survey effort being led by the University of Hawaii with $5 million in NASA funding.

When it’s fully operational in 2015, ATLAS should be able to provide a one-day warning for asteroids 26 feet (8 m) wide, a one-week alert for space rocks measuring 148 feet (45 m) across and a three-week warning for 459-foot (140 m) asteroids.

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