The Threat Posed by Asteroids and Comets
While SpaceX’s Starship mega-rocket is being designed primarily for transporting cargo into space, and missions to the Moon and Mars. Elon Musk has mentioned the possibility of equipping Starship to defend Earth from hazardous asteroids and comets. By augmenting the spacecraft’s capabilities, Starship could be transformed into a potent planetary defense system.
The threat posed by near-Earth objects (NEOs) like large asteroids and comets crashing into our planet is low, but potentially catastrophic. A 6-mile wide asteroid strike is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Today, space agencies monitor the skies for NEOs that come within 30 million miles of our planet.
Proposed Planetary Defense Augmentations for Starship
To redirect or destroy any threatening NEOs predicted to impact Earth, some have proposed outfitting future Starships with specialized payloads and technology for planetary defense missions:
One proposed approach is for Starship to serve as a high-speed kinetic impactor. Using its onboard propulsion, Starship would be directed on a precise collision course with the incoming NEO. Ramming into the object at ultra-high speed, Starship’s massive kinetic energy could alter the asteroid’s or comet’s orbit just enough to make it miss Earth. For larger objects, multiple impactor Starships may be required.
Nuclear Explosive Device
For larger NEOs, Starship could alternatively be deployed as a nuclear explosive delivery system. Carrying a high-yield nuke, Starship would detonate the device near the surface of the threatening object. The nuclear blast would impart detonation energy to divert the NEO’s trajectory or destroy it completely.
Requirements for Effective Planetary Defense
For Starship to effectively respond to asteroid or comet threats, advanced detection and tracking is essential. Space-based infrared telescopes, radar networks, and spacecraft stationed at gravitational balance points between the Sun and Earth could identify and monitor potential hazardous objects years or decades in advance.
Evaluating the Practicality and Feasibility
While still a theoretical concept, some believe Starship represents an ideal platform for a last-line-of-defense planetary protection system, if equipped properly. But there are still major challenges around practicality, timing, costs and risks that would need to be addressed. For now, increasing efforts to map dangerous NEOs and preparedness may be our best safeguards against cosmic catastrophes.