Natalie Starkey is a cosmochemist concerned about protecting Earth for future generations and is the author behind 2018 book “Catching Stardust”. Inside, Dr Starkey discusses how asteroids – the millions of small rocky bodies that lurk within the inner Solar System – could one-day end life on Earth. NASA is constantly scanning the cosmos and categorising any Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) as Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO) if they could pose a threat.
However, if a distant space rock does manage to slip through the space agency’s defence, there are several desperate measures that can be taken to save life on Earth, it was revealed during the text.
Dr Starkey wrote last year: “If we have very limited time, then we require an approach that can work in weeks or months.
“So, a more drastic method to avoid an impact with Earth, one that could work on any object regardless of its composition, might be called for.
“How about using a nuclear weapon? It may sound like total madness but, believe it or not, scientists are looking at the possibility of firing such a device at a space object to blow it into tiny pieces, maybe even reducing it to a cloud of gas and liquid droplets.
Natalie Starkey has warned of raining nuclear rocks
Millions of space rock inhabit the cosmos
It’s probably not something we would want raining down on the planet
“It may sound like a great solution but there’s a potentially big problem.”
Dr Starkey went on to explain how firing a nuclear weapon at a space rock could cause nuclear rain to head to the Blue Planet.
She explained: “The resultant shrapnel from such an explosion, however small, would be highly radioactive, so it’s probably not something we would want raining down on the planet.
“This would almost certainly be the case if we blew up the object at short notice if it was heading towards us.
“If the object was one that passed Earth frequently, moving ever closer to impact with each orbit, then it could be blown up in a pre-emptive strike on one of its prior close-Earth visits before the one that was predicted to cause total annihilation, nuking it as it was heading away from Earth.
Natalie Starkey with a comet in 2014
“In this way, any radioactive fallout from the destruction wouldn’t affect life on Earth.
“It may sound like a relief that, whatever happens, there is a strategy.”
Despite this, Dr Starkey raised a valid point over the politics behind firing a nuclear weapon in space.
She detailed: “There are some further complications.
“First, according to the Outer Space Treaty, nuclear weapons are not permitted to be used in space.
“Maybe in an extraordinary circumstance – such as a major threat to Earth – an exception could be made to save us from impending doom.
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NASA could fire a nuclear weapon at an asteroid
Natalie Starkey has made a stern warning
“Second, a modern-day nuclear warhead probably wouldn’t survive the impact energies associated with this course of action.
“Instead, it would more than likely need to be detonated close to the space object for the nuclear blast energy to nudge it to a different course, otherwise known as a nuclear stand-off explosion.”
Asteroid 101955 Bennu, formally known as 1999 RQ36, is a PHO listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale.
Investigators have already warned the space agency that it could be devastating if they do not act.
According to a study by scientist Maria Eugenia Sansaturio, the 1999 asteroid may impact the Earth.
Four asteroids that could strike Earth
Dr Sansaturio warned in a report for the Solar System journal Icarus that there is a good chance of the asteroid striking.
She told Universe Today in 2010: “The total impact probability of asteroid 1999 RQ36 can be estimated as 0.00092, approximately one-in-a-thousand chance, but what is most surprising is that over half of this chance (0.00054) corresponds to 2182.”
However, NASA has a less destructive move for Bennu.
The space agency is currently running a mission with its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to find out more about the rock.
The spacecraft spent two years chasing Bennu down, before orbiting it for another two years and taking samples.
Then, in 2023, it will blast back to Earth to allow scientists from around the world to study it.
The mission team is particularly interested in learning the role that asteroids like Bennu – dark, primitive and apparently carbon-rich – may have played in creating life on Earth.
It will also help scientists to refine the odds of a strike on Earth.