Solar technology has taken off and literally shot into orbit over the last few years with satellites and the USAF’s top-secret shuttle being powered by photovoltaic panels. Now a team from Scotland’s University of Strathclyde believes that the renewable energy source could have planet-saving potential – they’ve proposed building a series of spacecrafts equipped with solar-powered lasers that could deflect incoming asteroids.
The threat of incoming asteroids has been in the news a lot recently as several sizable chunks of space rock made ‘near passes’. NASA has come up with several solutions over the years to protect the Earth from such an impact, but the Strathclyde team believes theirs is the most realistic.
Unlike Hollywood, which proposes sending the likes of Bruce Willis to blow up intergalactic threats, scientists Massimiliano Vasile and Christie Maddock believe that is possible to instead ‘steer’ an asteroid with the use of lasers. Instead of ‘blasting’ it to pieces, the solar-powered lasers would shear off some of the asteroid’s surface. As the surface material is vaporized, it would generate thrust and force the asteroid off its original course. “[Our] paper demonstrates how signiﬁcant deﬂections can be obtained with relatively small-sized, easy-to-control spacecraft,” say Vasile and Maddock.
The scientists believe that a megawatt laser would be necessary for the job – in the past, such a device could only be powered by nuclear energy. Of course, the idea of a nuclear device circling the Earth has certain safety concerns, so the team has come up with a new design. Instead of a single nuclear laser, their plan hinges upon several smaller, solar-powered lasers. These “kilowatt-class” lasers are individually weaker, but combined they could pack a hell of a punch. Plus they require no fuel, are simple to maintain and much safer to operate.
There are some technical issues of course, such as the size, speed and geological make-up of the asteroid. All of this could factor into how effective the lasers would be. Also, debris could potentially block the lasers or the spacecraft might not be able to reach asteroids before it is too late.
The team has not said how their plan compares to other proposed solutions, such as using a nuclear bomb to deflect an asteroid’s trajectory, but it is a cleaner and greener solution and there is a chance that a solar-powered laser array could stop a potential Armageddon. After all, we are overdue for a large-scale impact (if the experts are to be believed).