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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Calling all physicists

Posted by: Hammer / 1:05 PM

Armageddon is a spectacularly crappy movie. "Don't, just don't," Ben Whofleck urges. "[Harry] doesn't know how to fail." Or something like that.

Part of the crap, of course, is that a space shuttle which can't withstand the impact of insulating foam could land on the harsh metal surface of an asteroid. NASA does have some very smart people working for them, so they have a new idea: the gravity tug.

But now comes an even cooler idea: A gravity tug. A new group of NASA wonks proposes sending a 20-ton craft out to meet with an oncoming asteroid, and have the craft's gravity field gently nudge the threat out of harm's way. The brilliant part of this concept is that it doesn't require actually landing on or physically interacting with the asteroid -- which is crucial, because those physics are hellishly complex, not least because, as we're learning, many asteroids are actually loose clumpings of rocks that could fly apart if a probe tried to land on them. Then we'd have a huge flotilla of multi-ton celestial popcorn flying at the Earth's atmosphere, and who wants that?

As I understand gravity, though, the force acts instantaneously across infinite distances (Which is the primary argument against the existence of a graviton particle, because it would exceed the speed of light. But then, what? Curved space? How how do you have to be to fully wrap your head around that?)

My concern, then, is what we don't know: "Scientists have analyzed about 65% of [near Earth asteroids] and concluded that they will not hit the Earth within 100 years; the other 35%, though, are still up for grabs." If we nudge one asteroid out of the way, what if nudge a bigger asteroid into a collision course with us?

I've watched science fiction, folks, and I can promise you this: if we put a gravity tug out into space, we're guaranteed to doom or existence. The law on unintended consequences bites you in the ass every time.

If we do put a tug into space and doom our planet to an ironic distinction, I have one last wish: let's all agree that God sent the asteroid to punish Pat Robertson. Right smack in the head.


As I understand gravity, though, the force acts instantaneously across infinite distances

Probably not. Einstein's general relativity says it propagates at the speed of light. There's much disagreement, and the experimental evidence thus far hasn't convinced many folks.

I agree with you on the gravity tug, though -- that's just asking for some instant karma of the worst kind.

By Blogger Joseph, at 9:30 PM  

I know Hammer is mostly being tongue in cheek but (and I'm really dredging this out of a memory hole) I think the force of gravity decreases in proportion to the square of the distance between objects so other objects don't have to be too far away before the effect of anything of man made size becomes pretty negligible pretty quickly.

By Blogger Jambo, at 12:07 AM  

Negligble is different than nothing. You only need to change the trajectory of an asteroid by a fraction of a degree to prevent impact. Such small changes usually do have large, ironic results.

By Blogger Hammer, at 8:08 AM  

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