With our knowledge of just how many hunks of rock are floating around in space increasing all the time, and given that we've already identified several of them as potential dangers in the future, there is serious thought being given to how we could defend ourselves against them. Hollywood would have us respond by sending a bunch of oil-drillers to blow the potential world-killer to smithereens with a nuclear bomb, and according to one group of researchers, they actually may have the right idea.
Scientists are developing an unmanned spacecraft called the Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIV), that is designed to fly out to any approaching asteroid and hit it with a nuclear version of 'the old one-two.'
The part that Hollywood got right — among the multiple things it got wrong — was that planting a nuclear bomb inside the asteroid is the key to completely destroying it. However, rather than exploiting a fault in the asteroid to fission it into two halves that will barely miss hitting the planet, the designers behind HAIV want to pulverize any inbound asteroid, scattering its remaining bits as far and wide as possible, so only a small fraction of it actually strikes the Earth (and hopefully burns up in the atmosphere).
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To do this, HAIV will deliver two nuclear weapons in quick succession. The first explosion will carve out a large crater in the asteroid, and the second will fly into that crater and detonate, with the intent to completely destroy the rest of it.
According to lead author Bong Wie of Iowa State University, planting a bomb just three metres below the surface of the asteroid would increase its destructive potential by 20 times.
"Using our proposed concept, we do have a practically viable solution — a cost-effective, economically viable, technically feasible solution," Wie said at last week's 2012 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) conference in Virginia.
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This particular project is designed to work alongside the various 'deflection strategies' that are being developed for long-term solutions to dangerous asteroids. It would be specifically to deal with smaller asteroids that go undetected until we are only a short time away from impact, but it could easily be scaled up to be a more permanent solution to larger rocks. The researchers plan to have the project operational by 2022.
"Our ultimate goal is to be able to develop about a $500 million flight demo mission within a 10-year timeframe," Wie said. "Once we develop technology to be used in this situation, we are ready to avoid any collision — with much larger size, with much longer warning time."
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