The man who could literally save the planet

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NASA is considering a device dreamed up by a professor from Iowa State University which could demolish large runaway asteroids from crashing into the earth.

Professor Bong Wie runs the "Asteroid Deflection Research Center" on campus. He's an aerospace engineer who spends his days thinking about Armageddon and for good reason.

Hazardous asteroids floating near Earth

NASA is tracking some 12,992 near-earth objects and about 1,607 of these are classified as potentially hazardous asteroids. There's also hundreds of giant comets, seen traveling in unstable orbits on the outskirts of the solar system. These so-called Centaur Comets range in size from 30 to 60 miles wide and are known to break apart. 

Some astronomers now believe a run-away chunk from one of these Centaurs became the six-mile wide asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs. But even an asteroid much smaller, can do cataclysmic damage.

If even a 164-foot long meteor were to strike Minneapolis, it would vaporize everything within a three-mile kill zone. A seven-mile burn zone would incinerate the Airport and Capitol. The Mall of America would be leveled.

How would it work?

Wie’s plan is called the Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIC). It’s designed to take out a meteor 150 meters or larger, or about the size of a football field.  It would require a nuclear payload launched aboard an Atlas V Rocket.

On final approach in space, the payload would be released and a laser guided system would target the asteroid. As it approaches, the vehicle separates. 

The first module (Kinetic Payload), strikes the asteroid with enough force to create a crater about 16 feet deep. It’s followed one millisecond later by the nuclear device that explodes within the crater, maximizing the nukes' explosive impact.  

Minnesota student working with Wie

Among Professor Wie's team of graduate students working on the plan is Josh Lyzhoft from Watertown, MN.

“I'll just say, the uncertainties of some of the stuff. The thrusters firing, we can't say exactly the direction, or can't say if the spacecraft is in the exact orientation we can only get so close,” said Lyzhoft.

Wie agreed, saying the intercept vehicle is not a 100 percent guaranteed space mission. But he said the goal is to shatter the debris into smaller pieces, basically creating a global shower of smaller asteroids about 20 meters (65 feet) in size. The outcomes will also depend on what the meteor is made of, whether it's solid or spongy and how much warning officials have to launch the device.  It could be launched in as little as 30 minutes.

Billion-dollar cost

The cost of the HVAC technology is $500 million for one vehicle, but Wie would like to have a backup in case the first one misses, bringing the total project cost to a billion dollars. 

"This is the only natural disaster predicted with reasonable accuracy and the only natural disaster that can be prevented," said Wie.

NASA is reviewing the feasibility of the professor's plan at the Goddard Space Flight Center and its national research laboratories. If it passes, NASA would look at budgeting actual experiments.

Most scientists believe the next logical step is to launch an infrared telescope into space that would be specifically dedicated to looking for hazardous near earth objects.