It’s not a matter of if, but rather when, a large asteroid or comet impacts Earth. It has happened many times in the past, but Earth has never been home to a spacefaring species before. With enough warning, humanity could potentially avoid impacts, or at least mitigate the effects. NASA just hosted a webcast to unveil the new Near-Earth Object Preparedness Plan. It addresses five goals for the US government to work on in order to save us from the next killer impact.
The preparedness plan involves input from more than a dozen government agencies. including NASA, FEMA, and NOAA. The report begins by stressing the potential danger of near-Earth objects (NEOs). These objects are defined as any asteroid or comet that passes within 30 million miles (48.3 million kilometers) of the planet. The graph below estimates the destructive potential of impactors, as well as how many of them are lurking in the space around Earth. Even small 20-meter objects like the Chelyabinsk, Russia asteroid can cause damage over a wide area. That asteroid exploded before reaching the ground and released 20-30 times more energy than the first atomic bombs.
The report calls on the government to first strengthen detection and tracking technologies. If we can’t see the threat coming sufficiently far in advance, there’s little chance we could prevent or even prepare for the impact. NASA has been surveying NEOs in the range of 1 kilometer or larger since the late 1990s. The plan directs agencies to look at ways to improve NEO detection with upcoming telescope projects, as well as develop new projects with the express purpose of tracking dangerous objects. This includes both ground-based facilities and space missions.
The second goal is to develop new tools for modeling and predicting the effects of impacts. These tools should be available to all agencies to ensure we’re working from the best data in the event of an impending impact. The third goal involves stopping impacts from happening in the first place, which means we’d never have to find out how accurate those models are in real life. The report directs agencies to assess technology that could realistically deflect an incoming asteroid or comet. NASA, the DoD, and the Air Force Space Command should develop these technologies (like the Hammer spacecraft) and work toward demonstration flights in the future.
Step four is mostly an exercise in diplomacy. The report suggests that the State Department and NASA work together to increase international awareness of impact threats, and improve cooperation with other governments to detect and thwart impacts. If none of that works, there’s the fifth and final goal. That’s the one that covers what to do if we can’t stop a NEO or don’t see it until it’s already on top of us. The plan calls on NASA, FEMA, and other agencies to create theoretical scenarios based on plausible impact events. These scenarios will inform the development of protocols for communication, emergency response, and ways to mitigate damage on the ground.
NASA says the 20-page report is a modest effort, but it can “dramatically increase” our preparedness in the event a dangerous object crosses paths with Earth. You can read the full report on the White House website.
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