The Loh Down On Science

Can paintballs divert asteroids on a collision course with Earth?

Suit up, people: time for paintballs versus asteroids! 

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Recently, the United Nations invited scientists to pitch their best plans to deflect potentially deadly asteroids. The contest brought in predictable ideas. Nuclear bombs, tractor beams, that sort of thing.

But a graduate student at MIT won by proposing we pummel asteroids with paint pellets. Think: Martha Stewart meets space science! That fresh paint coat boosts an asteroid's albedo. Which is . . . is a fancy word for reflecting light. Boosting albedo means more sunlight bounces off an object. And that's the key.

See, photons of energy from the sun exert a small but real pressure strong enough to nudge a satellite off course. MIT's Sung Wook Paek said, hey, let's use that solar pressure to push asteroids away!

He figures we'll need five tons of paint and twenty years of solar pressure to divert asteroid Apophis, which is approaching Earth in 2029.

Five tons of paintballs?  That’s a lot of teen birthday parties!  In space.  But never say never.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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