Register for an account

X

Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.

X

Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

The Sciences

Gravity to the rescue

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Apparently nuclear bombs and Bruce Willis are two things that are just too hard to control. So if a massive asteroid appears to be on a collision course with Earth, a couple of astronauts have invented a new way to save us from this cosmic menace: a gravity tractor.

gravitytractor.jpg

It's a simple enough idea: instead of blowing up the asteroid, just use gravity to gently deflect it from its path. If you have plenty of warning, you can send up a spaceship that is as heavy as you can manage, and simply park it next to the asteroid. The gravitational pull of the ship will gradually tug the asteroid off course; a tiny force, indeed, but if you let it accumulate for a few years you might be able to do the job. I confess to a certain amount of skepticism. The gravitational field of such a ship will be incredibly tiny, and even if you plug in the numbers and it seems to work, I would worry that other trace effects (e.g. outgassing or radiation from the ship) won't be equally important and work in the opposite direction. And when I heard a report about the idea on NPR, there was a curious statement from one of the idea's supporters, that it would work well for asteroids of such-and-such a mass. Where I was taught about gravity, the acceleration is independent of the mass, so that was a little confusing. It may be that the size of the thing is important -- if the asteroid center of mass is too far away from the tractor, you're in trouble, since gravity falls of as 1/r^2. But it's certainly a more sensible idea than the one mentioned by John in an earlier comment, and again at the bottom of the gravity-tractor article: a space vehicle propelled by the pressure of the inflationary vacuum state, recently granted U.S. patent 6,960,975. That's just completely crazy.

    2 Free Articles Left

    Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.

    Subscribe

    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

    Want unlimited access?

    Subscribe today and save 75%

    Subscribe

    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In