Talking Smack: The Asteroid Collision Quiz

Asteroids are like sharks. They're pretty common members of the solar system, but they rarely take a human life. So why do we tremble with fear every time astronomers spot one of these space rocks cruising near Earth? Because humans, for the most part, are fascinated with death and dying. We love car crashes, murder scenes and civilization-ending cataclysms. Now you can put that morbid curiosity to good use. Take this quiz on asteroid collisions and see if you have a knack for smack.
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1.Whenitcomestoasteroiddeflection,nuclearweaponsseemlikeagoodidea,butmanyastronomersshudderatthethought.Why?
  • A nuclear warhead could mutate an asteroid into an alien.
  • A nuclear warhead could split an asteroid into pieces.
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Hollywood's cosmic-collision movie "Deep Impact" may have gotten a lot of things wrong, but one thing it got right was the probable outcome of a nuke-versus-rock scenario. When a crew detonates a nuclear warhead on the surface of an Earthbound comet, the chunk of ice and rock splits into two chunks of ice and rock. Uh, Houston, we have a problem.
  • A nuclear warhead could miss and boomerang back.
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2.Someastronomersaren'tagainstnukesperse--theyjustargueforadifferentapproach.Insteadofmakingadirecthitwithawarhead,theyrecommenddetonatingonenearthethreateningasteroid.Howcouldthatpossiblyhelp?
  • The blast would cause uneven heating, which would move the object.
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Explode a warhead near an asteroid, and intense heat would wash over the surface closest to the blast. As material on one side vaporized, the asteroid would accelerate in the opposite direction and veer (we hope) off its collision course.
  • The blast would completely vaporize the object into dust and gas.
  • The blast would create a wormhole that would swallow the object.
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3.Whenitcomestodeflectinganasteroid,someastronomersthinkakineticimpactorsolutionmakesmoresensethannuclearweapons.Howwouldyoudescribethissolutiontoyourgrandma?
  • shoot rocks at an asteroid from a moon-based slingshot
  • slam a speeding spacecraft into the side of an asteroid
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: An unmanned probe can reach speeds of 5 miles (10 kilometers) per second in the autobahn of open space. That's a lot of kinetic energy that can be transferred to a threatening asteroid. Of course, you have to slam the probe into the asteroid if you want to release all of that energy, but it's a small price to pay to keep humanity safe, right Grammy?
  • whip space junk into an asteroid using a giant magnet
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4.WhatfamousworkofliteratureinspiredthoseRenaissancetypesattheEuropeanSpaceAgencyastheydevelopedtheirkineticimpactorconcept?
  • "Beowulf"
  • "Don Quijote"
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: It appears rocket scientists pay attention in English class, too. In 2005, ESA astronomers honored Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra by naming their kinetic impactor mission after his 17th-century novel "Don Quijote." The concept calls for two spacecraft -- an orbiter named Sancho to survey an asteroid and an impactor named Hidalgo to slam into its surface.
  • "Moby-Dick"
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5.SolarsailsareanoldconceptinastronomyandonethatcouldsaveusfromanEarthboundasteroid.Solarsailsarenamedafterthesimilarlynamedpropulsionsystemofseafaringvessels,buttheydon'tcatchmovingair.Howdotheywork?
  • They catch cosmic wind known as the "space trades."
  • They catch electromagnetic energy from the sun.
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Electromagnetic energy produced by the sun applies pressure to any object in the solar system. Astronomers call this solar, or radiation, pressure and have long thought it could be a source of propulsion for rockets. What's good for a rocket could be good for an asteroid. Weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen, scurvy dogs!
  • They catch exhaust gases created by spacecraft.
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6.Graffitiartistsmightonedaysaveourplanet.Howso?
  • Giving an asteroid a fresh coat of paint could attract rock-munching aliens.
  • Painting an asteroid could move it by way of solar pressure.
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: If mounting solar sails on an asteroid seems too iffy, you might consider coating it with highly reflective paint. This would have the same effect as a solar sail, harnessing the energy of incoming photons. Um, yes, I'm going to need 15 million cans of silver spray paint.
  • Tagging an asteroid makes it easier to target with nukes.
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7.Whatubiquitoustoolofsciencemightbeusedtosavehumansfromarunawayasteroid?
  • Bunsen burner
  • laser
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Lasers and rock (music) have always gone together, so why not zap a giant space rock with a laser? The beam of light wouldn't disintegrate an asteroid, but it might heat up the surface and release fast-moving jets of steam and other gases. According to Newton's laws of motion, each burst of gas would apply a tiny force in the opposite direction.
  • telescope
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8.Mirrorscanbehelpfulinidentifyingvampires.Howcantheybeusedtothwartamonsterasteroid?
  • Mirrors could be melted on an asteroid to increase its silica glass content.
  • Mirrors could confuse an asteroid by showing it a different background.
  • Mirrors could focus a beam of sunlight on an asteroid, heating its surface.
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Lasers aren't the only way to generate an intense beam of light. Mirrors mounted on a spacecraft could be oriented in such a way that they would direct a beam of concentrated sunlight toward an asteroid. This would heat the object's surface, cause violent outgassing and tweak its orbit just slightly.
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9.Inagravitationaltractor,whatplaystheroleofthetractor?
  • an asteroid
  • an astronaut
  • a spacecraft
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: If you place a spacecraft in a close orbit around an asteroid, it will pull ever so slightly on the rock, just like Grandpa's old Ford tractor. Over some 15 years or so, even a small vessel can pull the asteroid off course.
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10.Gravitationaltractorsworkbecauseeveryobjectintheuniverse,evensomethingassmallasapebble,hasgravity.AccordingtoSirIsaacNewton,thegravityofanobjectisrelatedtowhattwovariables?
  • mass and density
  • mass and distance
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Newton may have been inspired by a falling apple, but his genius was to extend the concept of gravity beyond Earth to all objects in the universe. A spacecraft zipping through the solar system, just like an apple, exerts a gravitational pull directly proportional to its mass and inversely proportional to the distance between it and another object.
  • mass and temperature
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11.Whichofthefollowingharborvesselswouldserveasagoodmodelforaspacecraftdesignedtoprovideslowandsteadypressureonanasteroid?
  • cargo ship
  • oil freighter
  • tugboat
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: A few scientists studied busy harbors here on Earth and observed how tugboats nudge large ships up to the wharf. Inspired, they devised a scheme to build a space tug -- an unmanned vessel that could push an asteroid out of the way using powerful plasma engines.
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12.Ifyouwantedtopushanasteroidwithaspacecraft,howlongwouldittaketoalteritscourseenoughtomissEarth?
  • 15-20 hours
  • 15-20 days
  • 15-20 years
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Want to move an asteroid? You better be in it for the long haul (or the long push). A rocky 656-foot (200-meter) asteroid might weigh as much as 10 million tons (10 billion kilograms), so it's going to take a long time -- at least 15 to 20 years -- to shove it out of the way.
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13.What'sthebasicjobofamassdriver?
  • to ferry cargo
  • to hit golf balls
  • to throw rocks
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: A mass driver scoops up rocks from the surface of an asteroid and hurls them out into space. With each throw, the machine applies a force to the rock, but the rock applies a force back to the machine -- and to the asteroid. Throw a few hundred thousand rocks, and you'll actually shift an asteroid's orbit.
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14.Theadvantageofamassdriveristhatitusesmaterialfoundnaturallyonanasteroid.What'soneofitsbiggestdrawbacks?
  • It must be assembled on the asteroid.
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Ah, deflecting a giant space rock is never easy. Most mass driver concepts call for robotic installation of the equipment on the surface of the asteroid. This by itself presents a daunting challenge, but there's also the issue of power. Throwing a few thousand rocks requires a substantial energy source.
  • It needs an oil change every 3,000 hours.
  • It requires the presence of astronauts.
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15.Inthetether-and-ballastmethodofasteroiddeflection,howlongshouldyourtetherbe?
  • 1 to 5 kilometers
  • 100 to 1,000 kilometers
  • 1,000 to 100,000 kilometers
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: This may not be an appropriate question to ask at a cocktail party, but when you're among rocket scientists, it's OK. This relatively new concept calls for attaching one end of a tether to an asteroid, the other end to a ballast. The distance between the two: somewhere between 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) and 62,137 miles (100,000 kilometers).
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16.HowcouldatetherandballastpreventanasteroidfromsmackingEarth?
  • by changing the asteroid's center of gravity
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: In a tether-and-ballast system, the ballast acts like an anchor, changing the asteroid's center of gravity and diverting its trajectory over the course of 20 to 50 years, depending on the size of the rock being moved and the weight of the ballast.
  • by transmitting electrical impulses down the tether
  • by wrapping around an asteroid several times
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17.What'sthenameoftheprogramdesignedtodetect90percentofnear-Earthobjects,orNEOs,atleast1kilometer(0.621miles)indiameter?
  • Doomsday Asteroid Survey
  • Spaceguard Survey
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: NASA addresses NEO detection through two surveys mandated by Congress. Asteroids at least 0.621 miles (1 kilometer) in diameter are the focus of the Spaceguard Survey. Smaller asteroids -- those that are 459 feet (140 meters) in diameter or greater -- are the focus of the George E. Brown Jr., Near-Earth Object Survey.
  • Holy Cow, That's a Big Rock! Survey
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18.Roughlyhowmanynear-EarthasteroidshavebeendiscoveredasofMarch2012?
  • 900
  • 9,000
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: As of March 2012, astronomers had discovered 8,818 Near-Earth objects. Nearly 1,300 were labeled as potentially hazardous asteroids -- rocks at least 492 feet (150 meters) wide and that come within 4,65 million miles (7,48 million kilometers) of Earth.
  • 90,000,000
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19.WhichofthefollowingwouldNOTbeaprioritywhenpreparingforanasteroidimpact?
  • decommissioning obsolete satellites
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Obsolete satellites would have to fend for themselves, thank you very much. If an asteroid made a beeline for Earth, astronomers would try to pinpoint where the rock would hit so ground-zero areas could be evacuated. At the same time, governments would get busy building underground bunkers, storing food and water, collecting animal and plant species and shoring up the global financial, electronic, social and law-enforcement infrastructures.
  • evacuating people from ground zero
  • storing large amounts of food and water
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20.Ifamedium-sizedasteroidstrucksolidland,whatwouldbetheconsequences?
  • a big crater, fires and possibly earthquakes
    Incorrect! Correct Answer: Impact of an asteroid no larger than 1,000 feet (300 meters) wide could have significant regional devastation. If the rock struck land, it would dig out a crater 1.86 to 2.49 miles (3 to 4 kilometers) across and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Everything within a 31-mile (50-kilometer) radius of the blast would be destroyed, with damage from firestorms and earthquakes extending even farther.
  • a big crater, hurricanes and tornadoes
  • a big crater, tsunamis and nuclear winter
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