Asteroid Headed for Earth? Iowa State Professor Has it Covered

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AMES, Iowa -- It's not science fiction, but it does sound like something from a movie. Earth's greatest scientists coming together to stop an asteroid from hitting our planet.

And one of those scientists is right in Central Iowa.

Professor Bong Wie, Iowa State University's Vance D. Coffman Endowed Faculty Chair in aerospace engineering, is working with his students on "asteroid deflection." To put it simply: Saving the planet.

His studies have contributed to NASA projects focused on identifying practical ways to wipe out an asteroid before it hits the Earth. If you don't think that's a realistic problem, Wie says to think again. A small meteorite that impacted a region in Russia in 2013, for instance, resulted in over 2,000 injured citizens and damage to thousands of buildings. An asteroid on a larger scale, he says, could have detrimental effects to our planet.

"For a 50-meter diameter asteroid, the damage can be equivalent to about 100 nuclear bombs," Wie said. "So, you decide why we need to develop a space technology to be ready whenever it is required to be used."

Wie explains two processes for asteroid deflection: "gentle," and "nuclear." The nuclear option is his favoriteĀ and is necessary for any asteroid on track to impact Earth in 20 years or less. That's because gentle deflection - which purposefully launches a satellite into the asteroid to knock it off course - requires low speed. Low speed, Wie says, is impossible as soon as the asteroid is 20 years or less away from our planet.

The nuclear option would pack nuclear weapons into a satellite. This satellite would launch into space before separating into two parts; the first part would impact the asteroid, creating a crater. The second part, holding the nuclear explosives, would then enter the crater before detonating. Wie says this would completely obliterate the asteroid, ending the threat.

While the technology and formulas are already available, Wie says it would take more than a year to prepare for a disaster like this.

"We cannot just design, build, and launch within one day, or even one year," he said. "It will take at least two years for 24 hours, seven days a week [of work]. For engineers...maybe 1,000 engineers, technicians. We will design, build, integrate with launch vehicle - it will take at least two years."

But don't fret. Wie says modern technology can detect an asteroid on a collision course for earth years away, meaning humanity has plenty of time to prepare for its defense.