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Planetary Defense Conference 2013 Part 3

Laser Bees

Posted by Bruce Betts

12-06-2013 21:19 CDT

Topics: Planetary Society Projects, planetary defense and Mirror Bees, Earth impact hazard, near-Earth asteroids

This is the third of my three part wrap up from last month’s Planetary Defense Conference: Protecting the Earth from Asteroids.  Part 1 covered some conference overview, summary of status of research in the field, and some of the special events at the conference; Part 2 covered the Planetary Society Shoemaker NEO Grants.  Here I talk about the Planetary Society project Laser Bees.

Laser Bees is a Planetary Society sponsored project being carried out at the University of Strathclyde, as well as the University of Glasgow, in Scotland.  The project is led by Massimiliano Vasile.  Much of the work is being carried out by doctoral student Alison Gibbings.  Alison was at the Planetary Defense Conference.

Laser Bees is a possible way to deflect dangerous asteroids using multiple spacecraft, each of which fires a laser at carefully selected points on the asteroid.  The lasers vaporize some of the rock on the asteroid, and the resulting jets of vaporized rock push the asteroid onto a new course.  Using lasers over many months we might be able to move even very large asteroids in a relatively short time frame.  Or, at least, that is how the theory goes.  Alison and her colleagues are testing out the concept on a laboratory scale to understand the amount of thrust produced, the amount of contamination that could get in the way, and to compare experiment to theory.

Laser Bees Spacecraft Concept

Laser Bees Spacecraft Concept
Artist’s conception of Laser Bees spacecraft swarming around a dangerous asteroid (or in this case, it uses an actual image from Deep Impact of Comet Tempel 1 to represent the threatening object).

Alison presented Laser Bees at the conference, both in an oral session and as a poster.  You can read her abstract here.  It was nice to see her be awarded 2nd place in the best student paper competition.

Laser Bees: Betts and Gibbings at PDC 2013

The Planetary Society/Mat Kaplan

Laser Bees: Betts and Gibbings at PDC 2013
Planetary Society Director of Projects Bruce Betts and Laser Bees researcher Alison Gibbings (University of Strathclyde) show off Alison’s 2nd Place awards in the Best Student Paper competition at the Planetary Defense Conference 2013 in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Alison and colleagues carried out the first round of lab experiments and learned a lot relative to models of what might happen.  Recently, she has been working to set up a more elaborate laboratory set-up for a summer of experiments, made possible by Planetary Society members and donors, that will include high speed video of the plume development, which should be, in a word, spiffy.

Laser Bees lab ablation of a porous rock sample

Laser Bees lab ablation of a porous rock sample
Porous rock during laser ablation in the lab as part of the Laser Bees project – notice the conical plume of material being ejected.

Alison also was interviewed by Mat Kaplan for Planetary Radio while at the conference and I encourage you to check out her interview

Laser Bees is moving to the next level and they expect a lot of progress this summer towards better understanding this relatively new possible deflection method and towards assessing its strengths and weaknesses.

See other posts from June 2013


Or read more blog entries about: Planetary Society Projects, planetary defense and Mirror Bees, Earth impact hazard, near-Earth asteroids


EarthlingX: 06/13/2013 01:46 CDT

Very nice idea. I like swarm and sophisticated use of force part.

Chris Rampolla: 06/13/2013 11:59 CDT

Fascinating idea. I wish the interview was a bit more extensive; I wonder what Ms. Gibbings thinks about the effect that asteroid composition will have on the overall process, and if the methodology behind this idea is in any way hindered by our current limitations in identifying an NEO's physical characteristics. Other than that, this seems like a much more reasonable strategy than nuclear devices or some other direct avoidance technologies.

Bob Ware: 06/13/2013 09:22 CDT

Have they decided on what LASER firing plans to try in their research? For example, several LASERS fire at one point or several points onto the CoM (Center of Mass) for a directional push? Have they thought about a later test with their own 'home made asteroid' in free fall aboard an aircraft? One LASER on a gimbal aimed into a large vacuum sphere with a free floating home made asteroid should give them some good data points. Multi-spectral imaging of the test would be nice to have.

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