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How to deflect an asteroid
MIT engineers devise a decision map to identify the best mission type to deflect an incoming asteroid.
On April 13, 2029, an icy chunk of space rock, wider than the Eiffel Tower is tall, will streak by Earth at 30 kilometers per second, grazing the planet's sphere of geostationary satellites.
It will be the closest approach by one of the largest asteroids crossing Earth's orbit in the next decade.
Observations of the asteroid, known as 99942 Apophis, for the Egyptian god of chaos, once suggested that its 2029 flyby would take it through a gravitational keyhole — a location in Earth's gravity field that would tug the asteroid's trajectory such that on its next flyby, in the year 2036, it would likely make a devastating impact.
Thankfully, more recent observations have confirmed that the asteroid will sling by Earth without incident in both 2029 and 2036. Nevertheless, most scientists believe it is never too early to consider strategies for deflecting an asteroid if one were ever on a crash course with our home planet.
Now MIT researchers have devised a framework for deciding which type of mission would be most successful in deflecting an incoming asteroid. Their decision method takes into account an asteroid's mass and momentum, its proximity to a gravitational keyhole, and the amount of warning time that scientists have of an impending collision — all of which have degrees of uncertainty, which the researchers also factor in to identify the most successful mission for a given asteroid.
The researchers applied their method to Apophis, and Bennu, another near-Earth asteroid which is the target of OSIRIS-REx, an operational NASA mission that plans to return a sample of Bennu's surface material to Earth in 2023. REXIS, an instrument designed and built by students at MIT, is also part of this mission and its task is to characterize the abundance of chemical elements at the surface.
In a paper appearing this month in the journal Acta Astronautica, the researchers use their decision map to lay out the type of mission that would likely have the most success in deflecting Apophis and Bennu, in various scenarios in which the asteroids may be headed toward a gravitational keyhole. They say the method could be used to design the optimal mission configuration and campaign to deflect a potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroid.
"People have mostly considered strategies of last-minute deflection, when the asteroid has already passed through a keyhole and is heading toward a collision with Earth," says Sung Wook Paek, lead author of the study and a former graduate student in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "I'm interested in preventing keyhole passage well before Earth impact. It's like a preemptive strike, with less mess."
Paek's co-authors at MIT are Olivier de Weck, Jeffrey Hoffman, Richard Binzel, and David Miller.
Deflecting a planet-killer
In 2007, NASA concluded in a report submitted to the U.S. Congress that in the event that an asteroid were headed toward Earth, the most effective way to deflect it would be to launch a nuclear bomb into space. The force of its detonation would blast the asteroid away, though the planet would then have to contend with any nuclear fallout. The use of nuclear weapons to mitigate asteroid impacts remains a controversial issue in the planetary defense community.
The second best option was to send up a "kinetic impactor" — a spacecraft, rocket, or other projectile that, if aimed at just the right direction, with adequate speed, should collide with the asteroid, transfer some fraction of its momentum, and veer it off course.
"The basic physics principle is sort of like playing billiards," Paek explains.
For any kinetic impactor to be successful, however, de Weck, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, says the properties of the asteroid, such as its mass, momentum, trajectory, and surface composition must be known "as precisely as possible." That means that, in designing a deflection mission, scientists and mission managers need to take uncertainty into account.
"Does it matter if the probability of success of a mission is 99.9 percent or only 90 percent? When it comes to deflecting a potential planet-killer, you bet it does," de Weck says. "Therefore we have to be smarter when we design missions as a function of the level of uncertainty. No one has looked at the problem this way before."
Closing a keyhole
Paek and his colleagues developed a simulation code to identify the type of asteroid deflection mission that would have the best possibility of success, given an asteroid's set of uncertain properties.
The missions they considered include a basic kinetic impactor, in which a projectile is shot into space to nudge an asteroid off course. Other variations involved sending a scout to first measure the asteroid to hone the specs of a projectile that would be sent up later, or sending two scouts, one to measure the asteroid and the other to push the asteroid slightly off course before a larger projectile is subsequently launched to make the asteroid miss Earth with near certainty.
The researchers fed into the simulation specific variables such as the asteroid's mass, momentum, and trajectory, as well as the range of uncertainty in each of these variables. Most importantly, they factored in an asteroid's proximity to a gravitational keyhole, as well as the amount of time scientists have before an asteroid passes through the keyhole.
"A keyhole is like a door — once it's open, the asteroid will impact Earth soon after, with high probability," Paek says.
The researchers tested their simulation on Apophis and Bennu, two of only a handful of asteroids for which the locations of their gravitational keyholes with respect to Earth are known. They simulated various distances between each asteroid and their respective keyhole, and also calculated for each distance a "safe harbor" region where an asteroid would have to be deflected so that it would avoid both an impact with Earth and passing through any other nearby keyhole.
They then evaluated which of the three main mission types would be most successful at deflecting the asteroid into a safe harbor, depending on the amount of time scientists have to prepare.
For instance, if Apophis will pass through a keyhole in five years or more, then there is enough time to send two scouts — one to measure the asteroid's dimensions and the other to nudge it slightly off track as a test — before sending a main impactor. If keyhole passage occurs within two to five years, there may be time to send one scout to measure the asteroid and tune the parameters of a larger projectile before sending the impactor up to divert the asteroid. If Apophis passes through its keyhole within one Earth year or less, Paek says it may be too late.
"Even a main impactor may not be able to reach the asteroid within this timeframe," Paek says.
Bennu is a similar case, although scientists know a bit more about its material composition, which means that it may not be necessary to send up investigatory scouts before launching a projectile.
With the team's new simulation tool, Peak plans to estimate the success of other deflection missions in the future.
"Instead of changing the size of a projectile, we may be able to change the number of launches and send up multiple smaller spacecraft to collide with an asteroid, one by one. Or we could launch projectiles from the moon or use defunct satellites as kinetic impactors," Paek says. "We've created a decision map which can help in prototyping a mission."
This research was supported, in part, by NASA, Draper Laboratory, and the Samsung Foundation of Culture.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.