HomeOutdoorsNewsAncient ‘Space Cushion’ Could Help Prevent Deadly Asteroid Collisions With Earth

Ancient ‘Space Cushion’ Could Help Prevent Deadly Asteroid Collisions With Earth

by Caitlin Berard
Illustration of Catastrophic Asteroid Collision With Earth

Microscopic dust particles from a 4-billion-year-old “space cushion” could hold the key to avoiding cataclysmic asteroid collisions with Earth, new research suggests.

To carry out this study, scientists collected three dust specks, less than 1/500th of an inch in diameter each, from an enormous 1,600-foot-long asteroid named Itokawa. The shocking results showed that some of these space rocks are far older than astronomers previously thought. Itokawa, for example, is almost as old as our solar system.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that Itokawa formed over 4.2 billion years ago, meaning it’s 10 times older than similarly massive asteroids. For comparison, the solar system is 4.57 billion years old.

Now, why the interest in Itokawa, specifically? Well, the peanut-shaped asteroid is classified as potentially hazardous. Meaning, should the asteroid one day veer onto a collision course with Earth, it would cause significant damage upon impact.

Additionally, Itokawa is no ordinary asteroid. Rather than a solid asteroid, gradually worn down by constant collisions over the millennia, Itokawa is a rubble pile asteroid. These constant collisions help create it, not destroy it.

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Rubble asteroids are made of rocks, dust, pebbles, and a void, all held together by the combined gravitational pull of the individual parts. As such, Itokawa has survived billions of years rather than the hundred-million-year lifespan of a solid asteroid.

“Such a long survival time for an asteroid is attributed to the shock-absorbent nature of rubble pile material and suggests that rubble piles are hard to destroy once they are created,” the study’s authors wrote.

“We were really surprised,” said study author Professor Fred Jourdan. “That’s really, really old, and I’m sure some of my colleagues are not even going to believe it. It’s like a giant space cushion, and cushions are good at absorbing shock.”

Because rubble pile asteroids are so resilient to collisions, astronomers now believe they’re likely far more abundant than they assumed. And since they’re difficult to destroy by force, scientists are searching for new ways to tackle these planet-razing “space cushions.”

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Rather than smash it to pieces, astronomers will likely nudge it off course, as proven by NASA‘s Dart test. This, however, would have to be done years in advance. Should scientists detect an asteroid too late, a nuclear blast could be the only means of saving the planet.

“It’s not Armageddon-style,” blowing it up, Jourdan said, referring to the 1998 sci-fi classic. “The shock wave should push the asteroid out of the way [without destroying it].”

This might seem a wild conclusion to jump to with just three hair-sized specks of dust, but scientists are able to learn a staggering amount from even the smallest piece of evidence by studying the particles at the atomic level.

“We can get big stories like that out of [something] very, very small, because those machines, what they’re doing, is the measuring and counting of atoms,” Jourdan said. “Every grain has its own story to tell.”