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'Marsageddon' comet scenario adds to concerns about space threats

Chris Smith / NASA file

An artist's conception shows a comet streaking through Martian skies.

It sounds like an "Armageddon" sequel, set on Mars instead of Earth: A supermassive doomsday comet is heading toward the planet in 2014, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Not even Bruce Willis.

The comet presents a good-news, bad-news situation for the Red Planet, and for us earthlings as well. NASA says Comet 2013 A1, also known as Comet Siding Spring, is almost certain to miss Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. However, there's still a chance — a less than a 1-in-600 chance — that Mars could be hit, due to the remaining uncertainty about the comet's path. That uncertainty is likely to be cleared up over the next few months, eventually resulting in an all-clear.

Even if the comet did hit, there'd be no negative effect on Earth. However, the "Marsageddon" scenario is already adding to the concern that was generated by last month's Russian meteor blast and a near-miss by a larger asteroid.

The case of Comet Siding Spring led Henry Vanderbilt, founder of the Space Access Society, to ask a scary what-if question. "If it was coming straight at us (no more or less likely than it coming straight at Mars), and given our existing space capabilities, could we do anything about it other than prepare to die?" he wrote in a posting to the Moon and Back blog. "The short answer is: Maybe."

The comet's size is the most worrisome part of the story. Based on its observed brightness, astronomers estimate that the iceball could be anywhere from 9 to 30 miles (15 to 50 kilometers) in diameter. In comparison, the asteroid that's been blamed for killing off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is thought to have been 6 miles (10 kilometers) in diameter.

A direct hit on Mars' backside wouldn't tear the planet apart, but it would produce an explosion that Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait estimates at somewhere around a billion megatons of TNT. That would create a huge crater, blast tons of debris into space and perhaps set off a flood reminiscent of the one that washed over Marte Vallis millions of years ago.

On Earth, the impact would be a civilization-killer.

How do you stop something like that? Scientists have proposed a variety of deflection techniques for smaller objects, when the collision threat can be detected years or even decades in advance. Those techniques range from space-based gravity tractors, to paintball shooters, to laser blasters, to laser bees, to solar sails, to "Armageddon"-style nuclear bombs. Just this week, Iowa State University's Asteroid Deflection Research Center proposed a $500 million mission to test a nuclear-armed asteroid interceptor.

"It's not a laughing matter," center director Bong Wie said in a news release.

There would definitely be no one laughing if a 20-mile-wide comet were coming at us with less than two years of advance warning. In that scenario, the only realistic option would be hydrogen bombs, and lots of them. Vanderbilt estimates it would take about 250 megatons' worth of energy to divert an object like Comet Siding Spring. At 1 to 5 megatons per bomb, that would mean 50 to 250 bombs from the nuclear powers' stockpile. 

"Whether we can effectively apply that energy to successfully divert the comet, we just don’t know," Vanderbilt wrote. "The problem has been studied a fair amount, and the answers vary. Nobody’s actually tested it. We would, under the circumstances, have little choice but to try."

For the time being, Comet Siding Spring is shaping up as a huge near-miss: NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's latest estimate has it missing Mars by about 31,000 miles (50,000 kilometers) — and at that distance, not even the debris flying off the comet is expected to affect the Red Planet or the probes flying around it. It helps that the comet's tail will be pointing away from the planet, as explained in this blog posting by the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla.

The comet would make an impressive sight if you were watching it from Mars (magnitude zero or brighter), and NASA's rovers will likely be doing just that. But it isn't expected to reach naked-eye brightness for earthly observers. Chances are that Comet Siding Spring will make its biggest impact as another reminder that we have to address the perils posed by cosmic threats sooner or later.

Considering what's happened over the past month, how many more reminders do we need?

More about cosmic threats:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.