NASA and FEMA practice asteroid collision scenario

NASA and FEMA practice asteroid collision scenario
© NASA

NASA and FEMA are practicing a simulation of an asteroid strike disaster at the annual Planetary Defense Conference. Several organizations participated, including NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office, the European Space Agency's Space Situational Awareness-NEO Segment and the International Asteroid Warning Network, according to CNN.

The scenario, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, involves a “near Earth object” (NEO) being detected in 2019 with a one-in-100 chance of hitting the Earth in 2027. What will various government agencies do to prepare?

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Based on how asteroid strikes are depicted in the movies, you’d wonder why FEMA is involved at all. If an asteroid were to hit the Earth, then all human life would be wiped out, just as the dinosaurs were about 65 million years ago. FEMA would not exist to pick up the pieces.

On the other hand, plenty of asteroid or comet collision scenarios do not involve a world-wide catastrophe. Depending on the size, mass and velocity of the NEO, the strike could wipe out a region of the planet or take out a city, similar to what would happen if a nuclear bomb exploded. In that case, it would be useful to have a plan in place to deal with the after-effects of the disaster, just as with a hurricane or earthquake.

A real-world instance of a space rock causing damage occurred on February 15, 2013 over the Russian town of Chelyabinsk. According to EarthSky, an asteroid measuring about 65 feet in diameter and moving at 12 miles per second entered the Earth’s atmosphere. It exploded 20 miles high with the force of 20 to 30 Hiroshima nuclear bombs. The shock wave shattered glass, knocked down buildings and caused 1,500 injuries over a wide area. 

A similar explosion would cause even greater damage, injuries and likely deaths if it were to occur over a large city such as New York or Paris. Having a plan in place to deal with the aftermath of even such a disaster would also be critical for reducing the number of deaths and getting rebuilding started quickly. 

The solution is like something out of a science fiction movie. Much like the plot of “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon,” the best way to deal with an asteroid collision is to not allow it to happen in the first place. As The Hill has reported previously, NASA is busily researching asteroid dynamics and how to detect them in time for them to be deflected.

NASA is due to try out one method of asteroid deflection with a mission called Double Asteroid Redirection Test or DART. DART will slam into a small asteroid called Didymos in the 2020s to attempt to change its direction by a small amount. Recently, SpaceX was tasked with launching the mission using one of its Falcon 9 rockets.

In a scenario in which an asteroid is detected headed toward Earth, this kind of kinetic deflection technique would be used to nudge the space rock just enough so that it would miss the Earth. The farther out that a killer asteroid is detected, the less it must be deflected. NASA would be all the more valuable for detecting the threat. 

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It should be noted that some analysts have suggested that the actual deflection of the asteroid might be a suitable mission for President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE’s proposed Space Force. If such an organization were to be operational by the time an asteroid threat were detected, it would have some experience operating in space already and should be granted the capability to react quickly.

Before the current exercise, the space agency has participated in six asteroid collision drills. NASA has always believed in simulations where it involves missions to the moon or possible launch mishaps. The same philosophy is being applied to what would become the space agency’s most important mission to date.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” Follow him on Twitter @MarkWhittington ‏.