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Keeping Us From Becoming Toast

Richard Fork, an electrical and computer engineering professor at UAH and principal investigator for the Laser Science and Engineering Laboratory, explains his asteroid deflection system.

Richard Fork, an electrical and computer engineering professor at UAH and principal investigator for the Laser Science and Engineering Laboratory, explains his asteroid deflection system.

Photo by Michael Mercier / UAH

Lasers based in space could effectively deflect small asteroids, making Earth a safer place to live, scientists from the University of Alabama in Huntsville have suggested to NASA.

And it’s important, even if it’s primarily aimed at small objects for the time being, engineering professor Richard Fork says.

The meteor that hit Chelyabinsk, Russia in February was only the size of a bus but had the potential to do enormous damage if it had hit a more populated area, Fork says.

The systems he and others at UAH are developing would focus laser beams on an object that’s on collision course with the earth and use a “carefully balanced thrust” to push it away.

At the start, the system can handle only small objects, but Fork believes that it can be adapted to move larger objects.

“Our concept is to go out after the little guys and, as we learn more, we can take on the big guys,” says Fork.

Fork says he is convinced that the most likely catastrophe to put an end to life on Earth is a hit from an extraterrestrial object.

If the Hale-Bopp comet had been on an Earth-bound course, instead of a nearby trajectory, “there would have been nothing we could have done. We would have been toast.”  

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