In the spring of 1967, an MIT professor noted that the asteroid 1566 Icarus would pass about 4 million miles from earth the coming June. He decided to use this event to get his class to do some work. He challenged the young minds in his care to come up with a plan to destroy Icarus should it head straight for our planet. This is their story.
The parameters of their assignment were as follows: instead of missing Earth, Icarus is on a trajectory to smash into it. The expected collision point is in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda. The debris from the collision would significantly lower global temperatures, and the collision would be the equivalent of 500,000 megatons. A 100 foot wave would destroy MIT.
Since the actual physical makeup of Icaraus was not really known at the time, the team made some assumptions about its density, material makeup and size. A few weeks later they went down to Kennedy Space Center for a tour. It was on this tour that they began formulating their plan.
The Apollo program was still on stand down from the Apollo 1 fire. Thus, there were Saturn V rockets, intended for use starting with an unmanned test on Apollo 4, just sitting around. Time to put those babies to use. The plan the students came up with would entail creating a new module to use in place of the service module and crew module that would be used on manned missions. The new module, with a more powerful main engine, would instead carry a 100 megaton nuclear device. Never mind that such a device did not exists. They would also modify the MIT-designed Apollo Guidance Computer to operate unmanned and autonomously.
The Saturn Vs would be set up to begin launching in the weeks leading up to the end of mankind. On April 7, 1968, the first rocket, Saturn-Icarus 1, would launch. This would be 73 days before the collision, and the rocket would reach Icarus 60 days later. As it approached the asteroid, an optical system would acquire the asteroid and the guidance system would correct coarse. One the interceptor was within 550 feet, the nuclear device would be triggered. It would explode 50 to 100 feet from the surface of the asteroid. Based on the assumptions the class made, a crater would be formed that would be 1000 feet wide and the velocity of the asteroid would be slowed between 8 and 290 m/s.
Just as Icarus 1 approached Icarus, ground-based radar would begin picking up the asteroid. This would aid in determining the effect of the interceptor.
Saturn-Icarus 2 would launch on April 22, and would intercept the rocky bringer of death with 10 days to spare. Saturn-Icarus 3 would launch on May 6. Saturn-Icarus 4 would launch on May 17. Saturn-Icarus 5 would launch on June 14, with only 22 hours to spare. A third launch pad at Complex 39 would be built. Pad 39-C had already been planned by NASA, but was cut for budget reasons.
Four other Saturn rockets would be on standby, ready to use if the blasts broke apart the asteroid. They would be targeted at the largest fragments.
Professor Sandorf’s class estimated the cost of all this at $7.5 billion. They calculated the probability of preventing an impact altogether at 71%. They gave it an 86% chance of reducing the damage. On the flip side, there was a 1.5% chance they would only fragment the asteroid, which could lead to greater and more widespread damage.
[Source: Wired; Image Credit: NASA]