TIME astronomy

Now We Know How This Giant, Earth-Bound Asteroid Is Held Together, We Can Learn How to Destroy It

Asteroid entering Earth's atmosphere
Erik Simonsen—Getty Images

New discovery might help Earth avert a collision with a menacing asteroid with a 1 in 300 chance of hitting the planet in 2880

An asteroid pointed toward Earth set to arrive in the year 2880 AD may not destroy all life as we know it after all, now that scientists know what’s likely not to work if we need to avert a collision.

Scientists at the University of Tennessee have discovered new cohesive forces that hold giant asteroids together, called van der Waals, that have brought scientists closer to understanding destructive asteroids that threaten to hit Earth.

The discovery could rule out previous methods scientists have proposed for dealing with rogue asteroids.

Previous research has shown that asteroids, which are loose piles of rubble, are held together by gravity. But scientists have now found that some asteroids—like the massive 1950 DA, which could smash into Earth in 2880—are spinning too quickly and defy the force of gravity, and would simply fall apart were they not held together by other means.

“We found that 1950 DA is rotating faster than the breakup limit for its density,” said Ben Rozitis, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tennessee. “So if just gravity were holding this rubble pile together, as is generally assumed, it would fly apart. Therefore, interparticle cohesive forces must be holding it together.”

The presence of cohesive forces in massive, life-threatening asteroids means that colliding a large object against the incoming asteroid could actually worsen the impact’s effect, potentially destabilizing the cohesive forces keeping the asteroid together and breaking it into several large asteroids headed for Earth.

That means destroying incoming asteroids with rockets a la the 1979 video game Asteroids may be a no-go. No word yet on the Armageddon (1998) solution, which involved burying a massive nuclear warhead below the surface of the Asteroid.

The asteroid 1950 DA is believed to have a 1-in-300 chance of striking Earth in the year 2880. If it does, scientists believe it would wipe out life on Earth and cause tsunamis and mass extinction.

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