Asteroid impact: NASA simulation shows we are sitting ducks

Even with six months' notice, we can't stop an incoming asteroid.

Asteroid impact: NASA simulation shows we are sitting ducks
Credit: NASA/JPL
  • At an international space conference, attendees took part in an exercise that imagined an asteroid crashing into Earth.
  • With the object first spotted six months before impact, attendees concluded that there was insufficient time for a meaningful response.
  • There are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects potentially threatening our planet.

The asteroid 2021 PDC was first spotted on April 19, 2021 by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii. By May 2, astronomers were 100% certain it was going to strike Earth somewhere in Europe or northern Africa. On October 20, 2021, the asteroid plowed into Europe, taking countless lives.

There was absolutely nothing anyone could do to deflect it from its deadly course. Experts could only warn a panicking population to get out of the way as soon as possible, if it was possible.

The above scenario is the result of a recently concluded NASA thought experiment.

The question the agency sought to answer was this: If we discovered a potentially deadly asteroid destined to hit Earth in six months, was there anything we could do to prevent a horrifying catastrophe? The disturbing answer is "no," not with currently available technology.

While Europe can breathe easy for now, the simulation conducted by NASA/JPL's Center for Near Earth Object Studies and presented at the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference is troubling. Space agencies spot "near-Earth objects" (NEOs) all the time. Many are larger than 140 meters in size, which means they're potentially deadly.

Sitting Ducks

Credit: ImageBank4U / Adobe Stock

"The level [at] which we're finding the 140-meter and larger asteroids remains pretty stable, at about 500 a year. Our projection of the number of these objects out there is about 25,000, and we've only found a little over one-third of those so far, maybe 38% or so," NASA's Planetary Defense Office Lindley Johnson tells Space.com.

With our current technology, spotting an NEO comes down to whether we just happen to have a telescope pointing in its direction. To remove humanity's blind spot, NASA is developing the NEO Surveyor spacecraft, which they plan to deploy in 2025. The project is being supported by the Planetary Society, the same organization that deployed Earth's first light sails. According to the Planetary Society, NEO Surveyor will be able to detect 90 percent of NEOs of 140 meters or larger, a vast improvement.

How to move an asteroid

The DART spacecraft will attempt to deflect an asteroid.Credit: NASA

The NASA/JPL exercise made clear that six months is just not enough time with our current technology to prepare and launch a mission in time to nudge an NEO off its course. (Small course adjustments become significant over great distances, which is why "nudging" an asteroid is a potential strategy.)

What would such a mission look like? Hollywood aside — remember Armageddon?— we know of no good way to redirect an NEO headed our way. Experts believe that shooting laser beams at an incoming rock, exciting as it might look, is not a realistic possibility. Targeted nuclear blasts might work, but forget about landing Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler on an asteroid to set off a course-altering bomb, especially just a month after its discovery (as was the case in the movie).

Another thing that might work is crashing a spacecraft into an NEO hard enough to shift its course. That's the idea behind NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission will shoot a spacecraft at the (non-threatening) asteroid Dimorphos in the fall of 2022 in the hope of changing its trajectory.

The deadly asteroid's journey

The asteroid "2021 PDC" hit Europe in NASA's simulation.Credit: NASA/JPL

The harrowing "tabletop exercise," as NASA/JPL called it, took place across four days at the conference:

  • Day 1, "April 19" — The asteroid named "2021 PDC" is discovered 35 million miles away. Scientists calculate it has a 1-in-20 chance of striking Earth.
  • Day 2, "May 2" — Now certain that 2021 PDC will hit Earth, space mission designers attempt to dream up a response. They conclude that with less than six months to impact, there's not enough time to realistically mount a mission to disrupt the NEO's course.
  • Day 3, "June 30" — Images from the world's four largest telescopes reveal the area in Europe that will be hit. Space-based infrared measurements narrow the object's size to between 35 and 700 meters. This would pack a similar punch as a 1.2-megaton nuclear bomb.
  • Day 4, "October 14" — Six days before impact, the asteroid is just 6.3 million km from Earth. Finally, the Goldstone Solar System Radar has been able to assess the size of 2021 PDC. Scientists calculate the blast from the asteroid will be primarily confined to the border region between Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Disaster response experts develop plans for addressing the human toll.

"Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature," says Johnson, "we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when."

Practically speaking, little can be done to hurry technological development along other than budgeting more money toward that goal. Maybe we should have Bruce Willis on call, just in case.

Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?

According to the Great Filter theory, Earth might be one of the only planets with intelligent life. And that's a good thing (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]).
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