Europe is developing an asteroid shield… but it won’t be in time for the 19-mile wide monster hurtling past Earth next week
By Katie Silver
Last updated at 2:18 PM on 27th January 2012
Scientists are trying to find a way to protect Earth from the giant rocks which travel around the Milky Way.
Run out of Berlin with funds from the EU, the NEOShield project, which will look for a way to protect earth from the space rocks, is expected to take three years to complete.
Some of the ideas being tossed around at the moment include repelling asteroids with projectiles or explosives or using gravity to change its course.
The project though is a little late as a chunk of rock 400 times the City of London is set to hurtle closer than a rock of its size has in a very long time.
The asteroid labelled ‘(433) Eros’ measures 19 by 8 by 8 miles and is set to pass by next week.
Despite its massive size, the cosmic rock shouldn’t be too cause too much of a threat as it is on a circular path far outside the moon’s orbit.
A smaller bus-sized asteroid is also set to pass extremely close to Earth today.
Even though this is more than five times closer than the moon, at 11 meters wide, it won’t be any threat to earth.
‘It wouldn’t get through our atmosphere intact even if it dared to try,’ Asteroid Watch scientists tweeted yesterday.
Nevertheless, with NASA estimating that there are almost one thousand asteroids over one kilometre in length and 19,500 over 100-metres, scientists at the Institute of Planetary Research are trying to find a way to protect Earth.
With an investment of some €4 million by the European Commission and an extra €1.8 million coming from scientific institutions and partners, the German Aerospace Center aims to have a plan for a test mission drafted within three years.
After that, if they can find the extra cash, the mission may be launched by 2020.
The scientists will be looking at a host of ideas, many of which have already been proposed.
For one, there’s the ‘kinetic impactor’ plan where a massive projectile would deflect the asteroid.
Another is the ‘gravity tractor’ idea where a small probe would linger near the asteroid and use its gravitational traction to move it out of Earth’s way.
Or, like waging an all-out space war, some have suggested a full scale strike with nuclear missiles.
‘Of course, a lot of things have already been proposed,’ Alan Harris, the study’s leader, told Spiegel Online.
‘But, so far, most of them have come from a single institution, perhaps even from a single person. So it has been hard to pursue them.’
Investigating each idea ‘will take place on paper and in lab experiments, since we don’t have the money to do more than that,’ said Wolfram Lork, who works with a subsidiary on the project.
One other, coarser idea would be ‘blast deflection’ which would involve deterring the asteroid with directed explosive charges. Harris says this would be the ‘final, desperate approach.’
‘We would like to present plans for a feasible, affordable mission.
‘We want to show the world it can be done,’ Harris said, adding that the ultimate solution might be a combining a gravity tractor with a kinetic impactor.
By observing the huge craters around the world – such as the Barringer Crater in Arizona or the Nördlinger Ries near Munich – scientists know that asteroids have struck Earth in its history and that, without action, they could well strike again.