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Shoot paintballs to deflect asteroids, save civilization

Image of Apophis
The asteroid Apophis is expected to make a close pass by Earth in 2029. New research suggests it could be deflected off course with a pair of well-timed volleys of paintballs.European Space Agency

A well-timed volley of paintballs may be all that’s needed to deflect an asteroid off a collision course with Earth, according to a graduate student with an apparent penchant for the paint-filled pellets.

The paintballs would be fired in two rounds to ensure coverage of the asteroid in a coat of white. The initial force from the pellets’ impact would bump the space rock off course; then, over time, the bouncing of the sun’s photons off the white surface would deflect the asteroid even more.

The concept is the brain child of Sung Wook Paek, a graduate student in the space sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It took first prize in the 2012 Move an Asteroid Technical Paper Competition,  which is sponsored by the United Nations’ Space Generation Advisory Council.

The concept adds to a list of ideas about how to prevent an asteroid from hitting Earth and sending humans the way of the dinosaurs. Other proposals include punching the space rock with a projectile to steer it off course and using a so-called gravity tractor to haul it to a new orbit.

The paintball concept builds on a proposal to bombard an asteroid with solid pellets. Paek figured adding paint to the pellets would take advantage of the sun’s radiation pressure. Such photon force has been shown to alter the course of Earth-orbiting satellites, for example.

The video below illustrates the concept.

Paek modeled the concept on the asteroid Apophis, a 27-gigaton rock that’s about 1,480 feet wide. It may pass close to Earth in 2029 and again in 2036. To deflect it using the paintball technique would require five tons of paint splattered on the asteroid about 20-years in advance of Earth impact.

One hurdle to implementation of the paintball theory is getting a ready supply of the projectiles into space. The violent shaking experienced during liftoff in a traditional rocket may rupture the payload of paintballs, Paek noted. 

An alternative is to make the balls on the International Space Station, which opens the real possibility of scientists on board donning protective gear and shooting paint pellets at each other for a little fun while saving human civilization.

– via MIT

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.