What could happen to Earth if we blew up an incoming asteroid?

Brin Bailey – brittanybailey@ucsb.edu

University of California, Santa Barbara, Physics Department, Santa Barbara, CA, 93106, United States

Popular version of 4aPA12 – Acoustic ground effects simulations from asteroid disruption via the ‘Pulverize It’ method
Presented at the 186 ASA Meeting
Read the abstract at https://eppro02.ativ.me/web/index.php?page=Session&project=ASASPRING24&id=3657765

–The research described in this Acoustics Lay Language Paper may not have yet been peer reviewed–

Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario: a new asteroid has just been discovered, on a path straight towards Earth, threatening to hit us in just a few days. What can we do about it?

A new study funded by NASA is trying to answer that question. Pulverize It, or PI for short, is a proposed method for planetary defense–the effort of monitoring and protecting Earth from incoming asteroids. In essence, PI’s plan of attack is to penetrate an incoming asteroid with high-speed, bullet-like projectiles, which would split the asteroid into many smaller fragments (pieces) (Figure 1). PI’s key difference from other planetary defense methods is its versatility. It is designed to work for a wide variety of scenarios, meaning that PI could be used whether an asteroid impact is one year away or one week away (depending on the asteroid’s size and speed).


Figure 1. PI works by penetrating an asteroid with a high-speed, high-density projectile, which rapidly converts a portion of the asteroid’s kinetic energy into heat and shock waves within the rocky material. The heat energy of the impact locally vaporizes and ionizes material near the impact site(s), and the subsequent shock waves damage and fracture the asteroid material as they move and pass (refract) through it.

How is this possible, and how could the asteroid fragments affect us here on Earth? Rather than using momentum transfer–like in methods such as asteroid deflection, as demonstrated by NASA’s recent Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission–PI utilizes energy transfer to mitigate a threat by disassembling (or breaking apart) an asteroid.

If the asteroid is blown apart while far away from Earth (generally, at least several months before impact), these fragments would miss the planet entirely. This is PI’s preferred mode of operation,as it is always more favorable to keep the action away from us when possible. In a scenario where we have little warning time (a “terminal” scenario), the small asteroid fragments may enter Earth’s atmosphere–but this is part of the plan (Figure 2).


Figure 2. In a short-warning scenario where the asteroid is intercepted and broken up close to Earth (“terminal” scenario), the fragment cloud enters Earth’s atmosphere. Each fragment will burst at high altitude, dispersing the energy of the original asteroid into optical and acoustical ground effects. As the fragments in the cloud spread out, they will enter the atmosphere at different times and in different places, creating spatially and temporally de-correlated shock waves. The spread of the fragment cloud depends on a variety of factors, mainly intercept time (the amount of time between asteroid breakup and ground impact) and fragment disruption velocity (the speed and direction at which fragments move away from the fragment cloud’s center of mass).

Earth’s atmosphere acts as a bulletproof vest, shielding us from harmful ultraviolet radiation, typical space debris, and, in this case, asteroid fragments. As these small rocky pieces enter the atmosphere at very high speeds, air molecules exert large amounts of pressure on them. This puts stress on the rock and causes it to break up. As the fragment’s altitude decreases, the atmosphere’s density increases. This adds heat and increases pressure until the fragment can’t remain intact anymore, causing the fragment to detonate, or “burst.”

When taken together, these bursts can be thought of as a cosmic fireworks show. As each fragment travels through the atmosphere and bursts, it produces a small amount of light (like a shooting star) and pressure (as a shock wave, like a sonic boom). The collection of these optical and acoustical effects, referred to as “ground effects,” work to disperse the energy of the original asteroid over a wide area and over time. In reasonable mitigation scenarios that are appropriate for the incoming asteroid (for example, based on asteroid size or by breaking the asteroid into a very large number of very small pieces), these ground effects result in little to no damage.

In this study, we investigate the acoustical ground effects that PI may produce when blowing apart an incoming asteroid in a “terminal” scenario with little warning. As each fragment enters Earth’s atmosphere and bursts, the pressure released creates a shock wave, carrying energy and creating an audible “boom” for each fragment (a sonic boom). Using custom codes, we simulate the acoustical ground effects for a variety of scenarios that are designed to keep the total pressure output below 3 kPa–the pressure at which residential windows may begin to break–in order to minimize potential damage (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Simulation of the acoustical ground effects from a 50 m diameter asteroid which is broken into 1000 fragments one day before impact. The asteroid is modeled as a spherical rocky body (average density of 2.6 g/cm3) traveling through space at 20 km/s and entering Earth’s atmosphere at an angle of 45°. The fragments move away from each other at an average speed of 1 m/s. The sonic “booms” produced by the fragment bursts are simulated here based upon the arrival of each shock wave at an observer on the ground (indicated by the green dot in the left plot). Note that both plots take into account the constructive interference between shock waves. Left: real-time pressure. Right: maximum pressure, where each pixel displays the highest pressure it has experienced. The dark orange lines, which display higher pressure values, signify areas where two shock waves have overlapped.

Figure 4. Simulation of the acoustical ground effects from an unfragmented (as in, not broken up) 50 m diameter asteroid. The asteroid is modeled as a spherical rocky body (average density of 2.6 g/cm3) traveling through space at 20 km/s and entering Earth’s atmosphere at an angle of 45°. Upon entering and descending through Earth’s atmosphere, the asteroid undergoes a great amount of pressure from air molecules, eventually causing the asteroid to airburst. This burst releases a large amount of pressure, creating a powerful shock wave. Left: real-time pressure. Right: maximum pressure, where each pixel displays the highest pressure it has experienced.

Our simulations support that the ground effects from an asteroid blown apart by PI are vastly less damaging than if the asteroid hit Earth intact. For example, we find that a 50-meter-diameter asteroid that is broken into 1000 fragments only one day before Earth impact is vastly less damaging than if it was left intact (Figure 3 versus Figure 4). In the mitigated scenario, we estimate that the observation area (±150 km from the fragment cloud’s center) would experience an average pressure of ~0.4 kPa and a maximum pressure of ~2 kPa (Figure 3). In the unfragmented asteroid case (as in, not broken up), we estimate an average pressure of ~3 kPa and a maximum pressure of ~20 kPa (Figure 4). The asteroid mitigated by PI keeps all areas below the 3 kPa damage threshold, while the maximum pressure in the unmitigated case is almost seven times higher than the threshold.

The key is that the shock waves from the many fragments are “de-correlated” at any given observer, and hence vastly less threatening. Our findings suggest that PI is an effective approach for planetary defense that can be used in both short-warning (“terminal” scenarios) and extended warning scenarios, to result in little to no ground damage.

While we would rather not use this terminal defense mode–as it is preferable to intercept asteroids far ahead of time–PI’s short-warning mode could be used to mitigate threats that we fail to see coming. We envision that asteroid impact events similar to the in Chelyabinsk airburst in 2013 (~20 m diameter) or Tunguska airburst in 1908 (~40-50 m diameter) could be effectively mitigated by PI with remarkably short intercepts and relatively little intercept mass.

Website and additional resources
Please see our website for further information regarding the PI project, including papers, visuals, and simulations. For our full suite of ground effects simulations, please check our YouTube channel.

Funding for this program comes from NASA NIAC Phase I grant 80NSSC22K0764 , NASA NIAC Phase II grant 80NSSC23K0966, NASA California Space Grant NNX10AT93H and the Emmett and Gladys W. fund. We gratefully acknowledge support from the NASA Ames High End Computing Capability (HECC) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) for the use of their ALE3D simulation tools used for modeling the hypervelocity penetrator impacts, as well as funding from NVIDIA for an Academic Hardware Grant for a high-end GPU to speed up ground effect simulations.