In his State of The Union message before Congress last week, President Obama announced that this generation's "Sputnik Moment" has arrived. He was referring to the United States' need to invest in research and development to revive the economy and ensure future stability.
But the real Sputnik Moment - when the Soviet Union established technological preeminence by hurtling a the world's first artificial satellite into Earth orbit - was an evolutionary game-changer. It ushered in an age when we would begin the conquest of space as the first "extra-terrestrial" generation.
So here's my Sputnik Moment: Launch an international space program to ensure the long term survival of the human species by building and testing a robust asteroid deflection capability.
The first target of choice is that pesky Apophis, which now hangs like a sword of Damocles - though it is not massive enough to be in the dinosaur-killer category.
Here are some of the Earth protection strategies that are on the table:
Hot Spot: Use a space mirror or laser to heat the surface and boil off material that acts as a small jet and reroutes the asteroid.
Gravity Tractor: Fly in formation with the asteroid for a long period and the gravitational attraction between the two bodies induces a small force that deflects the asteroid.
Asteroid Tug: Rendezvous with the object, make physical contact, and give it a nudge.
Photon Pressure: Make one side of the asteroid jet black or snow white (perhaps using reflectors) the extra absorption or reflection of sunlight will impart a net change of photon pressure on the object, altering its trajectory.
The Home Depot Solution
Physicist Daniele Farigon of the University of Rome has a bold proposal straight out of an Arthur C. Clarke science fiction novel. She suggests landing multiple nuclear powered "mass-driver" rocket motors onto an asteroid's surface. Like a drywall toggle screw, these devices would burrow into the asteroid's surface until they are rigidly anchored. They would then in unison eject mass, like a rocket exhaust, and thereby alter the object's trajectory.
The beauty of the concept is that by using a cluster of half-ton rocket motors would have redundancy and stability should one or more rockets fail to work, or properly anchor into the asteroid.
Once implanted into the surface, each so-called "screw-engine" would have one or more drills that would dig out dust from the asteroid's interior. This would provide the fuel for a nuclear-electric powered mass driver that would use a powerful electromagnetic rail to catapult buckets-full of dust off the asteroid's surface. This would act the same as a rocket's hot exhaust, except that the mass is not heated to a plasma but remains in solid form. Newton would have never imagined that his laws of motion would be used for such an exotic task.
The thrust from a cluster of the screw-engines strategically placed on an asteroid like Apophis could be timed and vectored for precision control over the asteroid's trajectory.