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Desert Diary
Physics/Pied Piper


Ever since it's been around, the Chihuahuan Desert has been showered with visitors from outer space. Historically, this space debris has done no great damage, but the more we learn, the more we realize that someday a catastrophic asteroid strike will happen if we do nothing. Lots of suggestions for diverting a body headed on a collision course with earth have been advanced, but most have severe drawbacks. Blasting away with a nuclear warhead or planting a rocket on board are two of the more common ideas. Both have the drawbacks of being difficult to control—we could inadvertently make things worse rather than pushing the asteroid away.

A more recent suggestion is to use a combination of gravity and propulsive force. Rather than trying to guide a spinning, non-symmetrical hunk of rock with a rocket, a heavily-weighted spacecraft would be positioned in space near the asteroid. Gravitational force would attract the two, and as the spacecraft moved slowly away under power, the asteroid would tag along behind: a new twist on the pied piper.
pen and ink

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.



Web Resources

Gravity Tractor