Nuclear warheads aimed at ‘doomsday asteroids’ could be solution, scientists say

Scientists believe firing a nuclear warhead at potentially planet-killing asteroids is a possible solution to fend off doomsday destruction.

The European Space Agency confirmed plans are in place to deal with mile-long asteroids with a flight plan directing the bit of space rock toward Earth. A number of contingent plans are in place to deal with a "planet killer" piece.

One such plan would see Earth fire a nuclear missile at the rock, hopefully destroying it before a global extinction event can be triggered by the impact.

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Doomsday scenarios are taken "very seriously" by space organisations across the globe, and it would appear Brent Barbee, aerospace engineer of NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Centre, is keen to assure members of the public about the severity of their plans.

Speaking to LiveScience, Professor Barbee said: "The kinetic impactor is a spacecraft that basically just rams into the asteroid at high speed and transfers its momentum to the asteroid, much like playing billiards.

"But then the ejected material that comes off the asteroid from the impact point can provide additional momentum change for the asteroid and push it a little bit harder." Recent tests from NASA saw a mission intentionally crash a spacecraft into an asteroid.

The test, which was carried out in September 2022, saw the Dimorphos asteroid, which posed no threat to Earth, slow in orbit upon collision with another space object. Humanity's first and only mission to alter the course of an asteroid was deemed a success.

But to deflect a "planet killer" asteroid, much more force is needed than the one which moved a 177-metre wide asteroid. Boffins would need to blast off with 39 to 85 Falcon Heavy rockets at the same time.

To deflect an asteroid big enough to destroy the planet, for example a 1.5km-wide space rock, there would need to be 565 to 1,266 kinetic impactors ready to strike. A nuclear warhead, then, would be a likely solution.

Professor Barbee said: "Space, of course, is a vacuum… so you don't get a big pressure wave, or any of the thermal effects of a terrestrial detonation. You get a whole lot of radiation all at once." No tests have yet been carried out on the success rate of such a launch, though simulations did prove fruitful.

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