The Fate of the World May Rest in the Hands of Two Walnut-Sized Meteorites

May 12, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Two meteorites held in gloved hands
Photo credit: Julie Russell/LLNL

Scientists are trying to figure out how to prevent an asteroid impact.

Around 4.6 billion years ago, two meteorites the size of walnuts crashed into Earth’s surface. The rocks were recently discovered by researchers in Antarctica, where they were sorted, classified at the NASA Johnson Space Center, and mailed to Megan Bruck Syal, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) postdoctoral researcher.

Now, the rocks are just months away from fulfilling their destiny — saving Earth. Sort of.

SEE ALSO: NASA’s Asteroid-Tracker Has Spotted 72 New Near-Earth Objects

The meteorites will soon be vaporized by a high-powered laser, and the data they yield on asteroid deflection could one day save the planet.

"It's not a matter of if, but when," said Bruck Syal in an LLNL news release. She is of course referring to the eventual collision of a large celestial object with Earth. "Our challenge is to figure out how to avert disaster before it happens."

Currently, NASA has identified over 14,000 near-Earth objects and calculated the probability of impact for each. Of these, 1,696 have been identified as potentially hazardous asteroids that come within 20 times the moon’s distance to the Earth. However, even though all these objects are being mapped, it really doesn’t do any good to see the object coming if there is nothing that can be done to prevent the impact.

This is where Bruck Syal comes in. She is a member of LLNL’s small planetary defense team whose primary task is to detect and deflect the next large Earth-bound object.

The goal is not to destroy the incoming object, but to nudge its trajectory just enough to make them miss — not an easy task. "Each comet and asteroid has its own unique character, which presents a challenge for predicting how an individual target would respond to a deflection attempt," Bruck Syal explained.

Enter the two tiny meteorites.

First, the rocks will be sent to one of the last remaining master opticians on Earth, who will cut and polish the space rocks down to thicknesses of tens to hundreds of microns. Then this fall, they will be mounted inside a chamber at LLNL’s Jupiter Laser Facility, and using a nanosecond laser pulse, a shockwave will be sent through the samples. This will vaporize the rocks and convert them to data, which will then be used to hopefully prevent an asteroid or comet impact.

Destiny fulfilled.

You might also like: NASA’s New Planetary Defense Coordination Office Is Not What It Sounds Like

Hot Topics

Facebook comments