This is a still from the re-entry of the Japanese space probe Hayabusa, which is returned yesterday with a sample of the asteroid Itokawa.

Itokawa is a 500-meter-long potato-shaped rubble pile, an asteroid that is not a solid rock like a boulder or mountain, but probably an assemblage of rubble held together by its own gravity. If one of these things were headed straight for us, we could lob nukes at it, even slam it with space probes at high speed to try to push it out of the way, and it would laugh at us. We need to understand these objects much better than we currently do if the time ever comes that we need to keep one from smacking into us.

Of course, this being a Japanese mission, we also have this:

Lots more here.

15 replies
  1. 1
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    First again, eh? Two posts in a row?

    ::looks around::

    Where *is* everybody?

    Anyhow, the Hayabusa stuff is very cool. But I have to admit, I really dislike that style of drawing. I had a quick look at the Drawr.net link and found it all pretty creepy. I know it’s popular but I not only don’t get it, I have a visceral, slightly hostile, response to it. YMMV and that’s fine, I’m not trying to start a flame war.

  2. 2
    Morbo says:

    Japan: home of more moe anthropomorphizations than living humans.

  3. 3
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Yeah, what Morbo said.

  4. 4
    4tehlulz says:

    Voyager-tan > Hayabusa-tan

  5. 5
    cleek says:

    Itokawa is a 500-meter-long potato-shaped rubble pile, an asteroid that is not a solid rock like a boulder or mountain, but probably an assemblage of rubble held together by its own gravity.

    my first reaction was to try to come up with a C++ object model for this.

    because i’m a geek.

  6. 6
    Rob in Dayton says:

    I thought this was going to be a motorcycle thread; dang.

  7. 7
    Keith says:

    How can a Japanese space probe not have tentacles?

  8. 8
    Shaun says:

    Hayabusa was my favourite Japanese wrestler. Broke his neck in the ring doing a back-flip off the rope.

    Now I’m depressed.

  9. 9
    Ken says:

    Yeah, it might actually be worse to nuke an asteroid before impact, converting it from a bullet into a shotgun blast. Phil Plait over at badastronomy has some stuff on this in his discussion of Deep Impact.

  10. 10
    Malron says:

    Anime FTMFW

  11. 11
    Crusty Dem says:

    FWIW, Phil admits in comments that a nuke would take care of an asteroid like this (small and fragmented). I’d still think that a shotgun blast of smaller objects would generally be better than one huge asteroid (since the smaller objects would lose a much larger proportion of their mass in the atmosphere, depends on the size of the chunks, too), though I feel very uncomfortable advocating anything seen in a Michael Bay movie. Except for Megan Fox.

    I think we should “practice nuke” one anyway, just to see what happens. /Easterbrook

  12. 12
    jimBOB says:

    Sounds like a job for a gravity tug.

  13. 13
    Joe Buck says:

    It’s held together by its own gravity. This means that if you can attach rockets to it early enough, and the rockets have relatively low thrust (so they don’t make the thing fall apart), you can effectively steer it, nudging its course just enough to miss Earth. Blowing it (or any asteroid) to smithereens would be somewhere between ineffective and self-defeating.

  14. 14
    Robert Sneddon says:

    The last two lines in the cartoon read:

    “Okaeri nasai!” == “Welcome home!”

    “Tadaima” == “I’m back.”

    As for blowing up a rubble-aggregate asteroid the trick is to do it early enough and big enough. That way the “shotgun blast” spreads out way larger than the interception track of the Earth and its atmosphere and so most of the debris would miss us.

    The centre of the debris cloud would still hit us, and the impacts would be spread over a few hours allowing the Earth’s rotation to bring more surface area under bombardment. Given the accuracy of orbital mechanics and computer modelling the people doing the blowing up could choose which hemisphere gets hammered the worst. The politics of the operation could get tricky, probably leading to a space race between the Asians and the Americans to get their bombs to go off first so the Other Guys take the hit.

  15. 15
    Catsy says:

    @Robert Sneddon: Just politics? It would start a new World War.

    That’s not hyperbole. Nations go to war over control of nuclear weapons, a parcel of land, a particular resource, treaties and assassinations, or who pissed in whose Cheerios that morning. The moment it became clear that the parameters of how and when the comet was disrupted would affect who gets hit, the comet becomes a kinetic energy weapon and the mission to disrupt it becomes fire control for that weapon.

    I’d like to think that humanity could pull together and set aside our differences–or at least enough of them–to face such an indifferent and apocalyptic threat. But history does not leave me sanguine about that. For that matter, present day doesn’t either–witness our inability to deal with climate change and other environmental issues.

    Hell, there’s a sizable chunk of the GOP’s Christianist base who would welcome the end of the world as God’s will and view any attempt to stop it as blasphemy.

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