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A Coat of Paint Could Stop an Asteroid Strike

Friday, March 23, 2018

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Keeping asteroids from impacting Earth is more than just blowing up space rocks; for one large asteroid that may brush shoulders with Earth, all that might be required to knock it out of its orbit is a coat of paint.

The asteroid, known as 101955 Bennu, is roughly the size of the Empire State Building and has a 1 in 2,700 shot of striking Earth in 2135, according to Gizmodo. To deal with larger threats, NASA has devised responses such as the Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, which entails nuking an incoming asteroid.

For something the size of Bennu, however, painting the surface could be enough to knock it off its current orbit.

Bennu Paint Job

“Even just painting the surface a different color on one half would change the thermal properties and change its orbit,” Michael Moreau, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Flight Dynamics System Manager, told Gizmodo.

NASA, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Since we don’t know much about the composition of asteroids, NASA has sent out the probe OSIRIS-REx toward Bennu to gather and return a sample of the rock by 2023.

Since we don’t know much about the composition of asteroids, however, NASA has sent out the probe OSIRIS-REx toward Bennu to gather and return a sample of the rock by 2023. The spacecraft will study the sample, and NASA will continue to collect data to help determine the likelihood of impact.

As for painting Bennu, changing the asteroid’s course through the application of paint boils down to the thermal change that would be brought about by the coating.

The sun emits particles that impact everything in the solar system. On something as large as the Earth, the particles have little consequence in their own orbit. Bennu, on other hand, weighs only around 13 times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is comparatively light, making the paint treatment a feasible option for course alteration.

The Yarkovsky Effect

According to NASA, a small, rocky space object would, over long periods of time, be nudged in its orbit by the slight push that results from the absorption of sunlight,  a phenomenon called the Yarkovsky effect. That energy is then then re-emitted as heat. 

“If it was up to me, I would send a rocket with some titanium dioxide on it and paint it white, and have that Yarkovksy effect accelerate, and move it away from the Earth,” Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist, told NBC in January 2017.

Titanium dioxide is a common ingredient in sunscreen, and appears chalky white. According to NBC, a spacecraft could fly to a dangerous asteroid, orbit around it and spray-paint it.

“If you have something like 50 years, that could deflect it enough, and it might be a whole lot simpler than sending up nuclear weapons,” Dworkin said.

As it stands, the government only requires that NASA track asteroids larger than a football field. Something smaller could still escape notice and cause significant local damage, however.

“The probability that any large asteroid is going to hit [us] in the near future is pretty low," said Bill Bottke, who studies asteroids at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “So I tend to focus on the more uplifting parts of asteroids.”


Tagged categories: Coating Materials; Coatings Technology; NA; NASA; North America; Program/Project Management; Thermal emittance

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