In the event that a giant asteroid headed toward Earth, according to Sung Wook Paek, an MIT graduate student, space-launched paintballs may deflect its course.
A brightly colored asteroid would reflect sunlight and over time, this bouncing of photons off its surface could create enough of a force to push the asteroid off its course.
Paek said that paint isn’t the only substance that such pellets might hold. For instance, the capsules could be filled with aerosols that, when fired at an asteroid, “impart air drag on the incoming asteroid to slow it down,” Paek says. “Or you could just paint the asteroid so you can track it more easily with telescopes on Earth. So there are other uses for this method.”
“It is very important that we develop and test a few deflection techniques sufficiently so that we know we have a viable ‘toolbox’ of deflection capabilities to implement when we inevitably discover an asteroid on an impact trajectory,” Johnson says.
William Ailor, principal engineer for Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., adds that the potential for an asteroid collision is a long-term challenge for scientists and engineers.
“These types of analyses are really timely because this is a problem we’ll have basically forever,” Ailor says. “It’s nice that we’re getting young people thinking about it in detail, and I really applaud that.”