Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday, 22 July 2013

Blink and you'll miss it

While others are toasting the arrival of a prince, we at the Tavern are raising a glass or two to 2013 NE19, latest of the near-earth asteroids to be discovered.

A week ago, it wasn't even a twinkle in an astronomer's eye, which only goes to show that, while they have labelled 10,000 of the things so far, there are plenty more out there waiting to be discovered.

2013 NE19 isn't too much to worry about, since it will be zipping past 2.6 million miles away at 2am BST tomorrow and is estimated to be between 194 and 426 feet wide. Never mind; it's always a good excuse for a party!

Still, should we need to deal with anything closer (assuming Bruce Willis isn't available), it's good to know that a physicist has devised an ingenious arrangement of solar-powered lasers capable of disintegrating or deflecting asteroids.

He estimates that it will be some decades before the full sized version is ready, but in the meantime, he's been working on a snappy acronym*:
DE-STAR stands for Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation
It does creak a bit at the end, but it's sufficiently close to 'Deathstar' to gratify a fair proportion of the target audience, especially given its inventor claims that a full-size array six miles wide has the potential to vaporise something the size of the Russian rock.
But since it’s completely modular, we propose starting smaller. We could begin with a version that’s three feet per side right now. With that, you could cook your dinner from 600 miles away.
Is anyone else thinking of Leonard of Quirm at this point? I mean, if you give a government the blueprints for something like that, it's a fair bet they won't be wanting to warm up a lasagne in a neighbouring country.

If the invention really works and ever gets built, it's quite possible the human race will manage to wipe itself out long before an asteroid arrives to do the job.

However, since we're all still here at the moment, please raise your glasses to 2013 NE19 as it flies past!

*Does anyone else ever wonder why that group of Bond villains wasted time devising the somewhat camp acronym 'SPECTRE'? ('Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion'; because every organisation needs a mission statement.)


  1. If one is going for an anti-asteroid device that is 6 miles wide, I suggest it might be easier to build if the specification was "six mile wide thing to put in the way". Of course, that would require us to know where the asteroid was (to within less than 6 miles), which is actually not a trivial problem - but I expect we will crack that one well before we can afford to put a six mile wide thing into orbit (even a bit at a time).

    The mode of operation for the 'obstacle' would work on conservation of momentum: a sort of billiard ball thing. After collision, the combined mass would be much greater and so the velocity smaller, however many different bits there were. The asteroid's orbit would be moved significantly away from its current orbit, and probably it would never pass nearby again.

    There might need to be a few detailed frills. For example, we would not want the 'obstacle' to disintegrate without massive sharing of momentum, or either the asteroid or the 'obstacle' to 'bounce' off the other into the Earth. Some sort of big net connected to the 'obstacle' with a bungee-jump cable seems appropriate - the cable would slow the transfer of momentum and so avoid the problems of the smashing of the 'obstacle' before it does its job and of having more than a single thing after the 'smoothed' collision.

    We should not ignore the desirability of such relatively low-tech solutions, especially when they are significantly more sophisticated than Bruce Willis and his bomb.

    Best regards

  2. NS, an interesting thought.

    I suppose the ideal situation would be to have your 'obstacle' parked in readiness (at a Lagrange point?) so that you can hitch on some boosters and send it to where it's needed.

    Construction would be much easier with a space elevator, but we're probably still a few centuries off that yet. In fact, it's not impossible that a way could be found to mine materials from - or even use in its entirety - a captive asteroid, should NASA's capture plans be successful.

    The bungee idea is intriguing, always assuming your could find materials which would have those properties in a sub-zero vacuum; it also raises the possibility of latching asteroid and artefact into a sort of binary orbit which - size permitting, might require less power to deflect.

    Alternatively, for small targets, your artefact might contain a form of spring which could temporarily store some of the energy on much the same principle as the 'broomstick' used for spacewalks in Arthur C Clarke's '2010'.

    All of these would, of course, provide major headaches for those in charge of calculating the outcomes, but I agree that the best solutions probably lie in mechanics rather than explosives.

  3. 2013 NE19 isn't too much to worry about, since it will be zipping past 2.6 million miles away at 2am BST tomorrow and is estimated to be between 194 and 426 feet wide. Never mind; it's always a good excuse for a party!

    You'll pop out and watch it go by?

  4. JH No need: