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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 November 2005, 18:21 GMT
Gravity tug to deflect asteroids
Image of the proposed asteroid "tractor" (Image: Dan Durda - FIAAA / B612 Foundation)
A rocket could act like a gravitational "tractor" (Image: Dan Durda/FIAAA/B612 Foundation)
Two Nasa astronauts say they have devised a plan to stop an asteroid potentially colliding with Earth.

The US spacemen Edward Lu and Stanley Love propose sending up a huge rocket to "tow" away any such objects.

Their vehicle would simply hover over the asteroid and use gravity as a "towline" to move it out of danger.

A 20-tonne craft could safely deflect an asteroid 200m across in about a year of such "towing", Lu and Love report in the journal Nature.

Scientists believe that if an asteroid this size collided with the planet, it would cause widespread damage and loss of life.

Various rescue strategies have been proposed, many of which have found their way into Hollywood movies.

This is a tremendously exciting idea that isn't from a Hollywood scriptwriter or a theoretical scientist
Rebecca Richard, Science Museum
Lu and Love believe that it would be extremely difficult to attach a spacecraft to the surface of such a rough and rocky body to push on it directly.

They argue that a spacecraft could simply use the gravitational attraction between itself and the asteroid to gently pull the hazardous object onto a safe trajectory.

The probe's thrusters would be angled away from the asteroid's surface so that they did not reduce the towing force.

The idea is being featured in a new exhibition at London's Science Museum.

"This is a tremendously exciting idea that isn't from a Hollywood scriptwriter or a theoretical scientist," exhibition developer Rebecca Richards said.

"It's real science from an experienced astronaut who could be transforming a simple scientific principle into an experiment of global importance."

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