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07-12-2024

NASA and AI found out what would happen if a small asteroid hit Earth

When we think about unexpected events, asteroid impacts are typically quite low on the list. After all, a large asteroid colliding with Earth is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

However, given the potential catastrophic damage that such an event could cause, experts from NASA have made it a priority to plan for this distant possibility.

Every two years, a special branch of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), leads a hypothetical exercise where scientists and decision-makers simulate an asteroid impact scenario.

The goal of these exercises, involving both federal and international agencies, is to address the uncertainties tied to an asteroid strike.

Grand schemers of disaster prep

CNEOS, based in Southern California, has been instrumental in formulating these disaster management exercises for over a decade.

These specialists are tasked with the crucial job of tracking and classifying asteroids and comets, in addition to identifying potential threats to Earth.

Paul Chodas, director of CNEOS, sheds light on the painstaking nature of these drills.

“These hypothetical scenarios are complex and take significant effort to design, so our purpose is to make them useful and challenging for exercise participants and decision-makers,” he explains.

By honing their processes and procedures, the team becomes better equipped to formulate an effective plan of action in case of actual threats, filling any gaps in the planetary defense community’s knowledge.

Earth and asteroid impact scenario

This year’s simulation brought the ‘what if’ into alarming focus. Imagining a hypothetical asteroid of considerable size, the team calculated a 72% chance of it striking Earth in 14 years.

Potential impact locations included heavily populated areas across North America, Southern Europe, and North Africa. However, there was also a substantial 28% chance that the asteroid would entirely miss Earth.

Once in close proximity to the Sun, further observation of the asteroid was deemed impossible for the next seven months, leaving decision-makers in a quandary concerning what to do next.

“This was a very successful tabletop exercise, with nearly 100 participants from U.S. government agencies and, for the first time, international planetary defense experts,” said Terik Daly from APL, who coordinated the exercise.

“An asteroid impact would have severe national and international ramifications, so should this scenario play out for real, we’d need international collaboration.”

Global team takes clues from reality

These simulations are a collaborative endeavor. Participants include NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), the Federal Emergency Management Agency Response Directorate (FEMA Response), and the Department of State Office of Space Affairs.

Earlier this year, nearly 100 participants from various U.S. government agencies gathered in Laurel, Maryland, at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL).

For the first time, international planetary defense experts were also part of this event, highlighting the need for global cooperation in handling such potential crises.

To make the scenario more realistic, the CNEOS team simulated all the observations leading up to the exercise.

“At this point in time, the impact was likely but not yet certain, and there were significant uncertainties in the object’s size and the impact location,” said Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer at JPL and CNEOS, who led the design of the asteroid’s orbit.

“It was interesting to see how this affected the decision-makers’ choices and how the international community might respond to a real-world threat 14 years out.”

Shields up: Averting potential disaster

Among the remarkable scientists pioneering asteroid deflection missions is the team behind the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART).

This mission was a monumental success and has provided foundations for future asteroid deflection efforts.

The process behind this isn’t as simple as playing cosmic billiards, though. It involves years of preparation and planning, requiring advanced observatories capable of detecting hazardous asteroids as early as possible.

The Near-Earth Object Surveyor (NEOS), an infrared space telescope slated for launch in late 2027, plays a significant role in achieving this mission.

Understanding Near-Earth Objects (NEOs)

Near-Earth objects (NEOs) are space rocks that come close to Earth’s orbit, including both asteroids and comets.

NEOs come in a wide range of sizes. Some are just a few meters across, while others can be kilometers in diameter.

Even small NEOs can cause significant damage if they collide with Earth, and large ones could lead to catastrophic events.

Many NEOs contain ancient materials from the early solar system. Studying these materials can give us insights into how planets and other celestial bodies formed and evolved.

Past lessons and future preparations

Let’s be honest. The idea of asteroid impacts may sound like a storyline lifted straight from a blockbuster movie script. But the effects of such celestial encounters are very real and potentially devastating.

The Tunguska event of 1908 serves as a grim reminder. A small asteroid exploded above Siberia, flattening approximately 80 million trees over an area stretching 800 square miles.

More recently, the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013 shook Russia, causing extensive injuries and property damage due to the resulting shockwave.

In light of past events and the potential risks they pose, NASA employs a comprehensive approach that consists of proactive and reactive strategies.

Proactively, missions like DART are integral to developing techniques to alter an asteroid’s course. Infrared space telescopes like the Near-Earth Object Surveyor aim to spot and classify potentially dangerous objects long before they become a threat.

Reactively, NASA has established emergency response exercises to ensure global coordination and swift decision-making processes are in place.

Protecting Earth from asteroids

NASA’s asteroid impact exercises serve as a stark reminder of the potential threats lurking in the cosmos.

These exercises simulate scenarios where an asteroid might be on a collision course with Earth, challenging scientists to develop effective strategies for deflection or mitigation.

Yet, they also highlight our abilities to strategize, collaborate, and leverage advanced technology in the face of such dangers.

By bringing together experts from diverse fields, from astronomy to engineering, these exercises foster innovation and preparedness.

Do you feel safer knowing about the measures in place?

Let’s continue our vigilance because, as the saying goes, “Forewarned is forearmed.” Every step we take today could be crucial for protecting our planet tomorrow.

Next time you look up at the night sky, remember the unsung heroes of space working tirelessly to safeguard our planet. Because as we’ve learned, the best offense can often be a great defense.

To find out the outcome of the exercise, read NASA’s preliminary summary.

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