Los Alamos National Laboratory
Screen shot from Los Alamos National Laboratory video shows a simulation of a large asteroid in the foreground, with Earth in the rear.
When geophysicist H. Jay Melosh attended a meeting of U.S. and ex-Soviet nuclear weapons designers in May 1995, he was surprised by how eager the Cold Warriors were to work together against an unlikely but dangerous extraterrestrial threat: asteroids on a collision course with Earth.
After Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, urged others meeting at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to consider building and orbiting huge, new nuclear weapons for planetary protection, some top Russian weaponeers lent their support.
“It was a really bizarre thing to see that these weapons designers were willing to work together -- to build the biggest bombs ever,” said Melosh, an expert in space impacts who has an asteroid named after him.
Ever since, he has been pushing back against scientists who still support the nuclear option, arguing that a non-nuclear solution – diverting asteroids by hitting them with battering rams -- is both possible and far less dangerous.
But Melosh’s campaign suffered a setback last month when Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz signed an agreement with Russia that could open the door to new collaboration between nuclear weapons scientists in everything from plutonium-fueled reactors to lasers and explosives research. A Sept. 16 DOE announcement cited “defense from asteroids” as one potential area of study.
President Barack Obama has committed the United States to seeking a world without nuclear weapons, but NASA is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to study their use against asteroids and the U.S.