Spray-Painting Asteroids Could Protect Earth from Space Rock Threat

Artist's illustration of an asteroid flying near Earth.
An artist's illustration of an asteroid flying near Earth. (Image credit: via Texas A&M University)

The dramatic space rock events of last week highlighted the need in many people's minds for a viable asteroid-deflection strategy, and one scientist thinks he has a good candidate — paint.

On Friday (Feb. 15), the 130-foot (40 meters) asteroid 2012 DA14 gave Earth a historically close shave, missing the planet by just 17,200 miles (27,000 kilometers). Hours earlier, a 55-foot (17 m) object exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, damaging thousands of buildings and injuring 1,200 people.

The asteroid encounters served as a reminder that Earth sits in the middle of a cosmic shooting gallery, scientists say, and that destructive impacts are inevitable in the future unless humanity takes action.

The scheme would use powdered paint, which the sun's rays would then cure into a smooth coating. The paint would probably have to be applied long before any potential impact — years or decades, perhaps — to give the Yarkovsky effect enough time to make a difference.

"I have to admit the concept does sound strange, but the odds are very high that such a plan would be successful and would be relatively inexpensive," Dave Hyland, of Texas A&M University, said in a statement. "The science behind the theory is sound. We need to test it in space."

NASA is interested in Hyland's idea and has approached the researcher to discuss developing such a space test, Texas A&M officials said.

Hyland is not the only scientist who thinks paint could save Earth from a cataclysmic impact. Last year, an MIT graduate student proposed launching a spacecraft that would bombard a threatening asteroid with paint-filled pellets. The idea won the 2012 Move an Asteroid Technical Paper Competition, which was sponsored by the United Nations' Space Generation Advisory Council.

Whatever deflection strategies researchers devise, the first step toward safeguarding the Earth is to detect and map the orbits of potentially hazardous objects, Hyland said. One million or more asteroids are thought to lurk in near-Earth space, but just 9,600 of them have been discovered to date.

"The smaller ones like DA14 are not discovered as soon as others, and they could still cause a lot of damage should they hit Earth," Hyland said. "It is really important for our long-term survival that we concentrate much more effort discovering and tracking them, and developing as many useful technologies as possible for deflecting them."

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.