Ball Aerospace proposes asteroid-busting robots

Published 23 January 2007

The collective action problem aside, saving the planet may be more important than saving the homeland; basketball-sized drones would swarm the asteroid, with some exploding while others listen to vibrations; Ball looks for funding and promises a three year delivery date

Call it home planet security. For decades now scientists have been trying to create methods of destroying incoming asteroids before they do to humans what they did to the dinosaurs millions of years ago. NASA, in fact, has already compiled a list of 800 of them considered close enough in orbit to pose a threat, but nobody knows which, if any, will eventually turn from their established course and crash into Earth. The best offense, then, is a good defense, and the latest to grab our attention is a Ball Aerospace-developed fleet of exploding robot probes.

According to Ball Aerospace inventors, the fleet of basketball-sized probes would swarm the surface of a threatening asteroid, with some detonating large explosives while others would listen for vibrations indicative of the composition of the asteroid’s inner core. If the asteroid turned out to be a single chunk of rock, an engine could be attached to the surface to pull or push it off its catastrophic course. (If the asteroid was merely a collection of smaller rocks loosely bound together by gravity, a “gravity tractor” — a spacecraft simply hovering nearby and using its own gravity to nudge the asteroid off course — would be neccesary to complete the job.) “These small probes are the way to go,” said astronomer Daniel Durda. “They’re cheaper, you can launch more of them, and the more you launch the more you learn.”

The probes also have the added advantage of being small, light, and relatively inexpensive. As many as six of the 12-kilogram probes could be loaded on a single spacecraft, and to reduce complexity and costs, they lack solar panels and run on battery power. Ball Aerospace believes that, with sufficient funding, the probes and the neccesary host spacecraft could be built in two or three years

-read more in David Shiga’s New Scientist report