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Bruce BettsJune 12, 2013

Planetary Defense Conference 2013 Part 3

Laser Bees

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.

Read more: Planetary Society Projects, Planetary Defense, Earth impact hazard, near-Earth asteroids

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
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