Researchers suggest that a white, reflective asteroid can potentially bounce enough sunlight off of its surface that it will eventually be physically pushed in one direction or another over time. We often forget that light isn’t magic: light is a physical property expressed in photons which create real energy and force in the universe. In the weightless void of space, this force is amplified.
Now if you were writing a sequel to Armageddon based on this report, you would have to come up with something a little less far-fetched for this next part: the way to make an asteroid more reflective would be to essentially pull a spacecraft up alongside it, and pepper its side and rear with enough white paint pellets to thoroughly cover the visible surface.
As far as plans that are just crazy enough to work go, the only way that this one could get any more out there is if NASA had to hire a gang of ragtag, underdog professional paintball players to do the job. The idea was proposed by MIT student Sung Wook Paek, studying at the school’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where it won the 2012 Move an Asteroid Technical Paper Competition. It’s no wonder we’re farming schools for innovative ideas when still-in-training scientists are coming up with stuff like paintballing an asteroid out of our path.
From nuclear bombs to “gravity tractors,” the contest turned up a number of interesting solutions to dealing with asteroids and other near-Earth dangers, but few as innovative as Paek’s.
The observation of a photon’s effect on the movement of an object in space was first observed on satellites which were apparently being pushed around by the sun’s rays in outer space. In fact, some researchers have suggested equipping spacecraft with blinding white sails to catch light just as a ship might catch wind.
Paek’s solution is both innovative and surprisingly low-tech. For all of the brute force and bluster of shooting an asteroid down with rockets or yanking it to and fro with enormous gravitational devices, the solution may in fact involve little more than a few hundred gallons of the same stuff you paint your fence with.