If you thought Michael Bay’s Armageddon strained the willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, think again. It turns out we really could use nukes to divert an asteroid that was careening toward Earth. That being said, we’d probably not send a crew of derelict oil drillers to do the job.
Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory used a supercomputer to model how a 1-megaton nuclear weapon would impact an asteroid 1,650 feet in length. The results were largely positive.
“Ultimately this 1-megaton blast will disrupt all of the rocks in the rockpile of this asteroid, and if this were an Earth-crossing asteroid, would fully mitigate the hazard represented by the initial asteroid itself," according to Los Alamos scientist Bob Weaver.
Even better news is that this affect was achieved with the blast occurring on the asteroid’s surface, not embedded deep inside of it as was the case in the Bruce Willis film.
Not everyone is sold on the idea being foolproof, though – some scientists have voiced concern that going with the nuclear option would eliminate the giant asteroid, but wonder what would happen if the many new, smaller pieces still hit Earth.
It should be noted that using nuclear weapons would be a last resort – utilized only when a potentially life-altering impact was just months from occurring. Given a larger advance notice, more benign options exist.
One, which is known as a “gravity tractor,” would require sending a probe to travel alongside the asteroid. The subtle shift in the gravitational field created by the vessel would be enough over the course of months and years to potentially alter the rock’s flight path into a less dangerous trajectory. If that doesn’t work, then another option is to crash the probe into the asteroid, which would also alter its path. That one’s obviously the trickier maneuver of the two, but we currently have the technology to make either plan work.
Whatever the case may be, we can all sleep easier tonight knowing that we are safe from a potential world-destroying asteroid collision, and that Armageddon is practically a documentary. We all win here.