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U Glasgow Researchers Reflect on Asteroid Collisions

Mirrors aren't just for motel room ceilings anymore. Among their many other consumer and industrial uses, ranging from the application of cosmetics to the checking of the evenness of one's sideburns, they might also be instrumental in defending the planet from collisions with apocalypse-class asteroids, according to researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

The approach is something along the lines of Archimedes' death ray, in which an array of mirrors focuses sunlight on an object with the aim of setting it on fire. In the asteroid-deflection scheme, mirrors hanging around various parts of space would focus sunlight precisely on a tumbling, hurtling asteroid to melt its surface and create thrust that would edge it off its collision trajectory. (Those of you who are reassured by such plans probably shouldn't watch Mythbusters episode 16.)

According to reports coming out of the U.K. this weekend, the U Glasgow researchers, led by Massimiliano Vasile from the Department of Aerospace Engineering, compared nine different proposed methods of defending the Earth from extinction-inducing collisions. The mirror death ray plan beat out, among others, a plan for blowing up asteroids with nukes (on the grounds that pummeling the earth with radioactive asteroid debris might prove counter-productive).

The plan would require thousands of individual mirrors and could take up to 20 years to develop, just in time to divert 99942 Apophis, a massive asteroid that, according to current estimates, stands about a one in 45,000 chance of hitting the Earth in 2029. (For those of you working out your phobia priorities for 2029, that's about nine times more likely than being killed in an aircraft accident and 177 times more likely than being killed in a car accident, so ... uh ... sweet dreams.)

The findings were revealed at a Manchester University event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sputnik last week.

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About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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