Scientists push plan to ‘evaporate’ asteroids using lasers (for real)

‘All the components of this system pretty much exist today’

laser

While a ginormous asteroid gives Earth a fly-by today and hundreds of Russians are being treated for injuries apparently sustained in a meteor shower, two California scientists are proposing a plan that would, among other envisioned benefits, "evaporate" potentially dangerous space rocks using an array of lasers.

I know what you're thinking: This sounds like some far-out idea from Star Trek.

"This system is not some far-out idea from Star Trek," says Gary Hughes, a researcher and professor from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. "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."

(Tech Firsts That Made a President's Day)

More from the press release:

As an asteroid roughly half as large as a football field -- and with energy equal to a large hydrogen bomb -- readies for a fly-by of Earth on Friday, two California scientists are unveiling their proposal for a system that could eliminate a threat of this size in an hour. The same system could destroy asteroids 10 times larger than the one known as 2012 DA14 in about a year, with evaporation starting at a distance as far away as the Sun.

UC Santa Barbara physicist and professor Philip M. Lubin, and Gary B. Hughes, a researcher and professor from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, conceived DE-STAR, or Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids an exploRation, as a realistic means of mitigating potential threats posed to the Earth by asteroids and comets.

How would it work?

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Described as a "directed energy orbital defense system," DE-STAR is designed to harness some of the power of the sun and convert it into a massive phased array of laser beams that can destroy, or evaporate, asteroids posing a potential threat to Earth. It is equally capable of changing an asteroid's orbit -- deflecting it away from Earth, or into the Sun -- and may also prove to be a valuable tool for assessing an asteroid's composition, enabling lucrative, rare-element mining.

Will it scale? ... Oh, yes, it will scale, insist the researchers.

In developing the proposal, Lubin and Hughes calculated the requirements and possibilities for DE-STAR systems of several sizes, ranging from a desktop device to one measuring 10 kilometers, or six miles, in diameter. Larger systems were also considered. The larger the system, the greater its capabilities.

For instance, DE-STAR 2 -- at 100 meters in diameter, about the size of the International Space Station -- "could start nudging comets or asteroids out of their orbits," Hughes said. But DE-STAR 4 -- at 10 kilometers in diameter, about 100 times the size of the ISS -- could deliver 1.4 megatons of energy per day to its target, said Lubin, obliterating an asteroid 500 meters across in one year.

So Lubin and Hughes have run their idea up the flagpole, now we'll see if anyone salutes.

And, of course, these guys are late to the party when it comes to thinking up ways to destroy asteroids: Discovery News has a Top 10 list here.

(Update: Story in Wired says forget about it, we're all doomed.)

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