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Her hyper-realistic computer models protect us from asteroids

Sabina Raducan has the kind of job you’d expect the protagonist of a 1990s Michael Bay movie to hold. on The Rock, Dr. Nicolas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed is an FBI chemical weapons specialist who helps save the day. on ARMAGEDDON, Bruce Willis’ Harry Stamper is a veteran oil driller who helps save the day. And at the University of Bern, one of Switzerland’s largest universities, Sabina Raducan is building hyper-realistic models of asteroid impacts. That one day could help save, well, our entire planet.

To be clear, Raducan does not model what would happen if an asteroid collided with Earth. Instead, as a postdoctoral researcher, he built numerical simulations of what would happen if we (meaning Earth) tried to deflect a destructive asteroid by sending a man-made “impactor” device to to greet it. Instead of destroying it, it can be used to push the asteroid out of the way so that it sails towards our planet.

For now, the idea of ​​having something like this as a precautionary measure is still in the future. If it does happen though (and it’s likely a “when” rather than an “if”), Raducan’s work could prove crucial. And, at least now, his research gives him a provocative icebreaker for the parties: “I work in the defense sector of the planet.”

The golden age of asteroids

Raducan was drawn to the subject of impact cratering when he completed a master’s degree in Astronomy, Space Science, and Astrophysics at the UK’s University of Kent. “Everyone is interested in Mars and the Moon,” he told Digital Trends. “All the research is there. I wanted to do something that was not overpopulated by scientists, and it was [much] less studied.”

An illustration of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth.

Scientists have been thinking about the possibility of protecting the Earth against potentially deadly asteroids for more than half a century. In the mid-1960s, many people were concerned about the possibility that Asteroid 1566 Icarus would collide with Earth, despite the fact that experts were confident that it would only pass within about four million miles. “Big Asteroid Heading for Earth” screamed one newspaper. “Hippies Flee to Colorado as Icarus Nears Earth,” writes an authority on New York Times.

At MIT, researchers plan to launch Icarus using six Saturn V rockets, each armed with another 100-megaton nuclear warhead. As expected, Icarus ended the loss of the Earth – although the work of MIT, described in more detail in the book Fire in Heavengenerated no shortage of press coverage.

But while since then there have been periodic surges of coverage for this topic, and no shortage of Hollywood movies (most recently Don’t Search), Raducan is confident that he entered the field at the right time.

Asteroid supermodels

One reason for this is the number of space missions and the resulting data. “Fifteen years ago there was such limited data [about asteroids],” he said. “Now we have more space missions going to asteroids and more data coming in. There is DART and Hera. Lucy’s mission is there. There are the OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa missions. There is the mission of Psyche. These are all data that you cannot get from Earth.”

Interestingly, not all of the data used to build Raducan’s models can come from real-life asteroids. Recently, some of his colleagues traveled to Spain where they fired plastic projectiles at a substitute scale model of the asteroid Ryugu, made of sand and rocks, using a compressed gas gun. These results also feed into his computer models.

This illustration shows the Lucy spacecraft passing one of the Trojan Asteroids near Jupiter.
An illustration of the Lucy spacecraft passing one of the Trojan Asteroids near Jupiter. Southwest Research Institute

A second, complementary reason that now is the best time to study asteroids is the Moore’s Law-driven march of technological progress. An asteroid impact simulation that, to use the same 15-year comparison mentioned earlier, would take a week to process in 2007 now takes half an hour. And the simulations that now take a week are far, far greater in their complexity.

The TL; DR version? We know more about asteroids and, in the words of The Six Million Dollar Man intro, we can rebuild them. Or at least model it in high resolution on a supercomputer.

A question of force

There are currently no asteroids of concern to scientists that pose an immediate threat to life on Earth. There is no immediate race against the clock to build a planetary defense system. But models like Raducan’s can help us better understand how to deal with asteroids if we need to one day. It also helps us better model these threats, whether the asteroids in question turn out to be large, dense space rocks or clusters of smaller rocks held together by gravity. Each of these will require different strategies, which is why computer modeling work like this is so important.

It’s easy to think that, when it comes to potentially lethal asteroids, we should hit them as hard as possible. After all, the concept of overkill, exceeding the amount of destructive capacity needed to solve the problem, doesn’t seem like much of an issue when you’re dealing with a potentially extinction-level event hitting Earth. .

an illustration of an asteroid disintegrating in space

But in reality, this is not the case. Hitting an asteroid with insufficient energy to deflect it is obviously bad news. However, so is hitting it hard – as anyone who has ever played an Atari game Asteroids will know.

“The problem is if you hit it too hard, you just break it,” Raducan said. “Then instead of dealing with one thing, you’re dealing with a lot of little things that are harder to control. Instead of one effect, you have different effects. That’s something you want avoid.”

Confirmation of predictions

Of course, the big question about Raducan’s models is the same as any predictive model: How accurate are they? Many intelligent computer models, with large amounts of data, fail. Famously, Google Flu Trends – which uses Google searches for flu-related queries – is wide on the mark in accurately predicting the spread of the flu virus during flu season.

How can Raducan be sure his models are accurate? In fact, if there is a killer asteroid, one miscalculation can be disastrous. Right now, the answer is … we don’t know. But we can only do so soon.

Last November, NASA launched its DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission. Billed as the world’s first full planetary defense test against the possibility of asteroid impacts, DART will collide with the asteroid target Dimorphos this September.

As part of his work, Raducan helped model the potential impact that DART would have on its target. His predictions suggest that the DART mission is unlikely to break up the asteroid, although it will significantly alter it. To break it would require 10x more impact energy. By analyzing data from the DART mission – and the European Space Agency’s Hera mission to investigate the after-effect of the DART probe – it is possible to determine how well Raducan’s models predict the effect.

Whatever the outcome, the resulting data will be used to make future models more accurate.

Build a planetary defense system

Ultimately, the hope is that Raducan’s predictive asteroid impact models will become an integral part of a planetary defense system that can protect Earth from the threat of future asteroid collisions.

Since the last extinction-level asteroid impact occurred about 66 million years ago, the probability of such an asteroid impact is low. (However, as NASA notes, an asteroid the size of a car enters Earth’s atmosphere about once a year, but burns up before causing any damage.)

an artist depicting an asteroid heading toward earth

However, given the potential damage a deadly asteroid could cause, Raducan believes it would be a worthwhile investment to take the necessary safeguards – at least until missions like DART.

“The DART spacecraft is a very low-cost mission compared to conventional space missions, because it’s a technology demonstration mission and not a science mission,” he said. “It has only a few instruments on board, such as a camera and a navigation system, and the duration of the mission is short, [being] less than a year in space.”

At the end of the day, it all comes back to Michael Bay. “To put the cost of the DART mission in context, it cost about the same amount to make a movie like ARMAGEDDON, because it is expensive to send an actual deflection mission in space,” said Raducan. “If it’s more important to film a Hollywood movie about an asteroid deflection than to send a spacecraft [to help us potentially do the same thing] we have to get our priorities right.”

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