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Asteroids rocketing towards earth? South Coast researchers say it's more than a sci-fi movie plot

Alexander and Peter Cohen
An illustration of the proposed planetary defense system. Rockets deploy rods in the path of the incoming asteroid, breaking it into small fragments that disintegrate and burn up in the earth's atmosphere.

UC Santa Barbara researchers say it isn't if, but when we get hit. They've developed a defense proposal.

It’s an unthinkable regional, or global disaster a South Coast professor says we should be thinking about. It’s the potential for an asteroid or comet to hit the Earth.

Dr. Philip Lubin is a UC Santa Barbara researcher, and physics professor. Lubin has been studying the potential for the planet to suffer a devastating strike, and what can be done about planetary defense.

Lubin says the data clearly shows Earth has suffered massive strikes with planet altering consequences.

Lubin and researcher Alexander Cohen have just completed two research papers on the subject. Lubin says part of the issue is doing a better job of tracking potential threats. He says the other is to develop a defensive system which could in effect knock out asteroids and comets which are already close to the planet.

He notes just a few years ago, researchers were tracking one asteroid which did a near miss of the planet when a smaller one came in virtually undetected, exploding over Russia. Fortunately, no one died in the 2013 blast.

In the past, Lubin’s research team has looked at the potential use of lasers to deflect large objects headed towards earth.

The latest proposal is development of a system which might be able to use conventional rockets carrying a payload designed to break apart asteroids.

The rockets would deploy what are called penetrator rods in the path of the oncoming object, slicing it up as it hits the road at high speed. The rods could even include explosives.

Lubin says we currently don’t have a plan, or the capacity to stop smaller objects which escape detection until they are close to the planet. The PI, or “Pulverize It” project could provide an answer.

The UCSB researcher says all of this hasn’t been a high priority with the U.S., or foreign governments, but he believes that if we are worried about defense against other countries, there should be room for this as well.

You can read more about the planetary defense research being done by the UCSB team through its website.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.