Asteroids, SUSE and Protecting the Planet


“I don’t want to be the embarrassment of the galaxy to have had the power to deflect an asteroid, and then not and end up going extinct. We’d be the laughingstock of the aliens of the cosmos if that were the case.”  – Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist

Asteroid Day is a global awareness campaign where people from around the world come together to learn about asteroids, the impact hazard they may pose, and what we can do to protect our planet, families, communities and future generations from future asteroid impacts. Asteroid Day takes place on June 30, the anniversary of the largest impact in recent history, the 1908 Tunguska event in Siberia.  That asteroid decimated about 800 square miles (to put that in perspective, greater London is about 600 square miles).  It’s estimated that a Tunguska-level “city-killer” asteroid hits the Earth every 500 years.  So, while there is nothing to lose sleep over, it’s imperative that we are aware and have a plan.

Last year, the National Science & Technology Council published a “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan”.  It details how NEO detection, tracking, modeling, prediction and even deflection of asteroids that pose a threat to civilization.  One of the organization’s involved is the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility at Ames Research Center in California – one of SUSE’s most well-known High-Performance Computing customers. The Pleiades supercomputer at Ames (SUSE Linux Enterprise HPC is the operating system on Pleiades) runs high-fidelity simulations of potential asteroid impacts covering a wide range of object sizes.  That’s exactly what the Asteroid Threat Assessment Project (ATAP) is all about – simulating asteroid impacts to help identify possible life-threatening events, maintaining a catalogue of NEOs (Near Earth Objects), and having a plan of attack in case an asteroid trajectory brings it too close to Earth for comfort.

Each day, about 100 tons of asteroids (tiny ones) hit the Earth (at night they appear as shooting stars and most burn up in the atmosphere).  Each year, about two asteroids the size of a car hit the Earth.  And every 10 years, an asteroid the size of a 2-bedroom house hits our planet – potentially causing lots of damage or at least a pretty big impact crater.

In February 2013, an asteroid as big as one of the president’s heads on Mt. Rushmore struck the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The blast from the asteroid’s shock wave damaged over 7,000 buildings as far away as 58 miles (93 kilometers), injuring more than 1,400 people. Since then, NASA researchers have been studying and simulating the event in order to gain a better understanding and more preparedness for when it might happen again. Their results help us all make better informed decisions for how best to defend against life-threatening asteroid events.  The NASA team was able to run large-scale simulations of the Chelyabinsk asteroid event on Pleiades to produce many impact scenarios quickly. The detailed simulations allowed the team to model the fluid flow that occurs when asteroids melt and vaporize as they break up in the atmosphere.  It’s estimated that a “Chelyabinsk” object hits the planet every 50 years. In our lifetime, it’s very possible that we will see it happen again.

NASA’s asteroid research is shared with scientists at universities, national labs, and government agencies who develop assessment and response plans to look at damage to infrastructure, warning times, evacuations, and other options for protecting lives and property.

I agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson and want to avoid being an embarrassment to the cosmos by not using the power to deflect an asteroid extinction event when it happens.  So, as we near Asteroid Day 2019, rest assured that HPC is doing its part in helping to prepare – and protect – the world!

Check out the High-Performance Computing solutions from SUSE at and .

Jeff Reser, SUSE HPC



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  • Viktor says:

    Of course, the detail “diagnostic” (detection of NEOs, determination their orbits and other parameters) is the first step to saving Earth. But as for “cure”…

    Actually, most of proposed methods and approaches to the planetary defense are not enough effective and not scalable even to country-wide-destruction size of asteroids. For example, it is unlikely that the kinetic impact will work because of the internal structure of near-Earth asteroids is crumbly: “We think they’re very loose aggregates. They’re not solid through and through” said Melissa Morris, OSIRIS-REx deputy program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The detail photos and probe impacting of Bennu and Ryugu are reflected this rubble-pile natural properties of the NEOs, which will prevent shock wave propagation and proper impulse transfer.

    In addition, the ultra-high-power nuclear blast scenario is risky and can pose danger both at the ground-based and space-born stages. It can also result in creating a stream containing hundreds of “city-killing” radioactive pieces, e.g., in the case of disintegrating a sub-km asteroid. Moreover, as follows from computer simulations, shortly after explosion all of the pieces will settle back onto the mass center.

    Also the approach based on intensive laser heating is not viable because of cooling impossibility for any powerful (over 100 W) laser, which operating in space as continuous-wave device during prolonged period.

    It appears that asteroid deflection by evaporating their material using highly concentrated sunlight is the only method that meets all of the following criteria: scalability up to global-threat sizes of hazardous bodies, sufficient thrusting power without huge volume of propellant, environmentally friendliness as well as low cost.

    An improved concept for such solar-based deflection using an innovative concentrating collector was proposed and substantiated in 2013 – see:
    and also a short demo-video:

  • Jeff Reser Jeff Reser says:

    Thanks for your insightful comments Viktor. As each NEO would have a different composition, part of the detection and analysis would be understanding the composition. Then we would begin to understand the best course of action. Asteroid compositions are determined through several methods, including infrared spectroscopy and planetary radar. With the former, different minerals absorb different wavelengths of light. By looking at the infrared spectral absorptions, and comparing them to spectra of minerals measured on Earth, it is possible to identify the composition. The later, using radar, a radio signal is sent to the asteroid and we look at what is reflected back. The radio waves react differently to different materials, for example metals look quite different from rock. Once we have that understanding we can better produce a plan to deflect, “deflate” or destroy the asteroid.

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    Jeff Reser