If movies have taught us anything, it’s that in the event of an asteroid on a collision course with earth, a scrappy team of non-astronauts is needed to land on that asteroid (preferably with a snappy Aerosmith soundtrack) and avert a crisis for their home planet. Thankfully NASA doesn’t pay much attention to the movies. NASA has recently unveiled the plans for their new Hammer probe, which would use a bit of brute force to nudge pesky asteroids off of a collision course with the planet where we all live. If the brute force isn’t enough, Hammer will go to plan B: Nukes.
As with most things that probably don’t need to be acronyms, HAMMER is, in fact, an acronym for Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response. For brevity I’ll just keep calling it “Hammer.” It’s also important to note that the Hammer probe is still little more than a proof of concept. Scientists were tasked with coming up with a system that could deflect a large asteroid in the event one is detected wanting to give Earth a high five. NASA has its eyes on a couple possibilities, but the one they’ve been modeling for this project is the Bennu asteroid.
Bennu was discovered in 1999, and has been hanging out in our vicinity ever since. NASA recently launched its OSIRES-REx mission heading to Bennu to grab samples and come home, so it made a lot of sense to take some of the same calculations to apply to the theoretical yields for Hammer.
The goal, provided an imminent collision is detected early enough, would be to use the 8.8 ton “impactor” of the Hammer in a calculated strike to throw the asteroid off course enough to avoid crashing into the Earth. If time isn’t on our side, or if the asteroid is just too big for a quick nudge, the literal nuclear option would be on the table. Admittedly very few of the agencies involved in creation of Hammer actually want to throw nukes into space, but backs against the wall at least at this point it’s the best option available when the alternative could be total planetary annihilation.
While it’s not even a given that Hammer will ever be built, it’s going to be awhile before it may even be an issue. The closest chance scientists believe Bennu has of hitting us is about one-in-2700, and that won’t happen until 2135. Hopefully it won’t even be necessary, but at least with Hammer we wouldn’t have to worry about keeping Steven Tyler alive long enough to belt out a sequel to “Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” Don’t get me wrong, the man’s a treasure, but he’d be 187 years old in 2135.
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