Laser-blasting System Could Vaporize Big Asteroids

by Elizabeth Howell on February 15, 2013

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DE-STAR, a proposal to blow up asteroids as they bear down on Earth. Credit: Philip M. Lubin

DE-STAR, a proposal to blow up asteroids as they bear down on Earth. Credit: Philip M. Lubin

The uncanny — but unrelated — combination of today’s close flyby of Asteroid 2012 DA14 and the meteor that created an airburst event over Russia has many wondering how we could deal with future potential threats to Earth from space. A group of researchers are hoping to aim a laser-blasting vaporizer in its direction and blow it away.

Dubbed DE-STAR, or Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation, the theoretical orbital system is designed to convert the sun’s energy into laser blasts that would annihilate any cosmic intruders bearing down on Earth.

Although the system sounds like a plot from a science fiction movie, the researchers — led by scientists at two California universities — maintain that it is built on sound principles.

“This system is not some far-out idea from Star Trek,” stated Gary Hughes, a researcher and professor from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in a press release.

“All the components of this system pretty much exist today. Maybe not quite at the scale that we’d need – scaling up would be the challenge – but the basic elements are all there and ready to go. We just need to put them into a larger system to be effective, and once the system is there, it can do so many things.”

Construction details were not clear in a press release advertising DE-STAR, but the researchers describe astonishing results from even a modest-sized version of the system.

DE-STAR was modeled at several different sizes. At 328 feet (100 meters) in diameter, which is double the International Space Station’s size, it could “start nudging comets or asteroids out of their orbits,” Hughes stated.

A 6.2 mile (10-kilometer) DE-STAR version could send 1.4 megatons of energy daily to the marauding asteroid, providing enough juice every year to kill a space rock as big as 1,640 feet (500 meters) across. (That’s more than 10 times the size of 2012 DA14, which came within 17,200 miles of Earth Feb. 15.)

“Our proposal assumes a combination of baseline technology –– where we are today –– and where we almost certainly will be in the future, without asking for any miracles,” added Philip Lubin, who is with the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Besides asteroid annihilation, DE-STAR could give a fuel boost to long-distance space travellers.

A proposed DE-STAR 6 (size not disclosed) is advertised as able to push “a 10-ton spacecraft at near the speed of light, allowing interstellar exploration to become a reality without waiting for science fiction technology such as ‘warp drive’ to come along.”

The press release did not reveal a budget for any version of the DE-STAR, how it would be constructed, or how quickly the system could begin fencing with asteroids.

Researchers emphasized, however, that system proposals such as theirs must be taken seriously to ward off incoming space rocks.

“We have to come to grips with discussing these issues in a logical and rational way,” stated Lubin.

“We need to be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with threats. Duck and cover is not an option. We can actually do something about it and it’s credible to do something. So let’s begin along this path. Let’s start small and work our way up. There is no need to break the bank to start.”

Source: UCSB

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE February 16, 2013 at 12:58 AM

A 6.2 mile (10-kilometer) DE-STAR version could send 1.4 megatons of energy daily to the marauding asteroid, providing enough juice every year to kill a space rock as big as 1,640 feet (500 meters) across.

[Cynic]
Congress will only provide funding for it if you tell them that it could also be used to vaporize an enemy’s city!
[/Cynic]

daniel_rey_m February 16, 2013 at 6:17 PM

No, they also do it when they’re bribed into doing it by the company that wants to build the contraption and get a juicy contract. Most members of Congress are on the payroll of Big Business, as shown in THE RICH AND THE SUPER-RICH, by Columbia U. economist Ferdinand Lundberg, which was a bestseller many years ago. It’s the usual way of doing business all over the world, and the United Nations and the World Bank are responsible.

GregtheThird February 16, 2013 at 2:33 AM

Great idea that would work for asteroids, but what about comets? The nightmare scenario is a sizeable oort cloud wanderer coming in on a collision course with Earth.

Olaf2 February 16, 2013 at 3:27 AM

Comets are easier, they get vaporized into gasses.

GregtheThird February 17, 2013 at 8:35 PM

The minor point I was making is that there wouldnt be enough time to disintegrate a comet with solar energy: 1) due to the lack of solar energy at the distance and incoming comet would be first detected 2) There wouldnt be enough time to blast the thing before it disintegrated. This could be a useful system for near Earth asteroids, however.

Dav_Daddy February 17, 2013 at 9:21 PM

I would think that with what we know of the composition of comets and the energy this thing would put out there would be a fair chance of mitigating the damage of a potential comet impactor.

Given it is not coming at us from the far side of the sun. A previously unknown comet coming for us with a gravitational assist from the sun is a situation our technology is not remotely capable of dealing with. If that ever happens all we can do is duck and cover. A little prayer might not be a bad idea either.

Olaf2 February 18, 2013 at 6:29 PM

An object never stays at the far side of the Sun. That is because Earth moves.

Olaf2 February 18, 2013 at 6:27 PM

The chance of being hit by a comet is way lower than an asteroid.

Asteroids tends to to live near the plane of the solar system. Kuiper belt, asteroid belt. Both are belts not clouds.

Comets tend to come from the Oort cloud, this means that the incoming comets have a 360×180 incoming vector. Much lower chance to hit Earth.
But you don’t have to vaporize a comet. A light beam will vaporize one side and that is basically the equivalent of sticking a rocket to that one side.

GregtheThird February 19, 2013 at 5:31 AM

I suppose that a souped up laser could deflect an inbound comet with an impact trajectory with Earth by vaporizing one side enough to gas-jet it off course. Someone should crunch those numbers to see how many joules this laser would need to do the job. (naturally this would depend somewhat on the mass of the comet) Of course we would first need a detection grid capable of tracking these objects as early as possible coming in from the 360×180 vectors in question. Although this sounds like hypothetical nonsense, for the long term survival of humans on this planet such a detection/defense system is a need not a luxury.

CallanTFC February 16, 2013 at 4:46 AM

Convert it how? Are we talking about a system of Fresnel Lenses here? I don’t know of any system that could push a spacecraft to anywhere near C… even a perfect solar sail and a gargantuan series of Fresnel lenses might get you to, what, 0.5C?? Either way, ironically, Ivan3man’s “cynic” comment isn’t far off.. whatever the system, if it’s able to produce 1.4 Megatons of energy (er… energy? Megaton’s are measurements of explosive force a la TNT.. 1 MT = 4.184×10 to the 15th Joules, so if you wanna figure it out from there..) someone’s going to wonder what happens if you point it down, rather than up. Cynics would see that as one big shiny weapon floating over our heads! It would never fly.

GregtheThird February 17, 2013 at 8:49 PM

There is potential here to accelerate a spacecraft to a high velocity, but like anything else it would be prohibitively expensive. Considering that what they are saying is true, you could put a small craft in solar orbit, set up stations with these lasers around that orbit and focus blasts of solar energy at that craft to accelerate it. The craft would be unmanned and would need careful guidance so that it would stay in the same orbit as it accelerated. When it has reached a sufficient velocity it would then break orbit and head out to it’s destination. I could see such a system used initally for unmanned scout probes to other stars. As it would likely take some time to accelerate the spacecraft, a grappling system might be needed to add crew once it has reached sufficient velocity to break orbit. You are likely going to need many of these laser stations which is where the expense comes in.

mmurdoch February 16, 2013 at 5:41 AM

Not so much Star Trek, but it’s right out of Doc E E Smith’s Lensman series.

Rain February 16, 2013 at 6:18 AM

“…annihilate any cosmic intruders”
Really? Annihilate? ANY intruders? What if they are the size of 4 Vesta?
“…send 1.4 megatons of energy daily to the marauding asteroid”
Megaton is a measuring unit of energy?
Do asteroids maraud?
What does it mean to “kill a space rock”?
Does Elizabeth Howell know she is writing for a science site?
What is “Space Studies”?

disqus_cdXWv2wGGG February 16, 2013 at 8:35 AM

What if a band of marauding terrorists seize this and point it toward the Earth?

Dav_Daddy February 20, 2013 at 3:32 PM

I was referring to a previously unknown comet or asteroid coming “at us” from the far side of sun. I never said it would stay there for any length of time, actually the exact opposite.

We would have very little if any time to act because:

a. It would be moving really fast having just been accelerated by the sun.

b. It would still be very hard to detect once it shot around the sun because it would always be on the daylight side of the planet with the sun behind it.

Olaf2 February 20, 2013 at 6:40 PM

That is not how the universe works. Earth moves about 1 degree per day around the sun. In 1 month we moved about 30 degrees.There is no sneaking up for a comet behind the sun and then magically pops up out of no where. In addition the maximum speed of the comet that gets near earth would be around 42 km/s. And that maximum speed would only happen when Earth distance is the closest distance for that comet. Otherwise it is not part of the solar system.

Dav_Daddy February 22, 2013 at 11:23 AM

Considering how many comets and asteroids we fail to discover until after they have passed inside of Earths orbit, that is a very bold statement.

In the worse case scenario I described the comet/asteroid would catch a gravitational assist from the sun, thus its speed would be greater than 42km/s. Even at 42km/s assuming our solar observation satellites pick it up as it passes the sun it would then take this object approximately 41 days 8 hours until it would impact earth.

As stated in numerous posts both here and elsewhere with technology that is currently available we would need lead time on the order of decades to have a reasonable chance of avoiding an impact.

Given the fact that if we were to detect it when it was 2 AU away that would still be popping out from the back side of the sun and all we could do is duck & cover.

Olaf2 February 22, 2013 at 7:19 PM

There is no such thing of a gravitational assist of the sun. The sun causes the elliptical orbit. The only thing that can exceed the object past escape velocity is other planets including Earth. But since the planets are far away, the effect is maybe 0.1 km/s.

No object can hide behind the sun for that long.

Dav_Daddy February 25, 2013 at 11:47 AM

Comets can and do get ejected from the solar system by the sun. In fact we have observed a star ejecting a planet and even a star eject another star. What on earth led you to believe that a planets gravity can shoot an object out of the solar system but the sun can’t?

mass of the sun = 1.98892 × 10^30 kilograms
mass of Jupiter = 1.8987 × 10^27 kilograms

That would make the sun 1047.5 times the mass of Jupiter (if I did my math correctly?)

Now the only way one of these comets and/or asteroids is going to cross the orbit of the Earth is if it has already been disturbed from its elliptical orbit around the sun to begin with so your argument makes absolutely no sense.

Olaf2 February 25, 2013 at 5:41 PM

“What on earth led you to believe that a planets gravity can shoot an object out of the solar system but the sun can’t?”

facepalm!

Take Universe Sandbox, put a star the size of the sun and make a comet orbit that Sun without any planets. That orbit will stay that orbit for many thousands of years.

Now put in planets. Those are the ones that will alter the orbit of the comet not the sun. In order to alter orbit you need something else to speed up or slow down like a planet.

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