If an asteroid impact was imminent, how would government agencies and citizens react? Could we stop it? Would we know enough to protect people? These and many more questions will be addressed this week at the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference. NASA, other federal agencies, and international organizations are conducting a tabletop exercise on what to do if a space rock is on a collision course with Earth.
The fictional scenario that will run over the next five days starts with the (fake) discovery of a near-Earth object (NEO) that has a 1-in-100 chance of hitting Earth in 2027. The participants will discuss reconnaissance and possible deflection missions, as well as ways to mitigate the effects of the impact if the deflection plan fails to avert the crisis.
"These exercises have really helped us in the planetary defense community to understand what our colleagues on the disaster management side need to know," Lindley Johnson, NASA's Planetary Defense Officer, said in a statement. "This exercise will help us develop more effective communications with each other and with our governments."
In this hypothetical scenario, NASA and other space agencies around the world will have to track and learn a lot about the object. If an impact with Earth is unavoidable, we have to have the most accurate orbital data to predict where it might hit. The collaboration between organizations is key, and the exercise is not scripted. The aim is to work out exactly what each organization needs.
"What emergency managers want to know is when, where and how an asteroid would impact, and the type and extent of damage that could occur," said Leviticus Lewis of the Response Operations Division for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
This is the seventh time NASA has been involved in one of these exercises. Three took place at previous Planetary Dense Conferences and three were run jointly with FEMA. The joint meet-ups also include representatives from the Departments of Defense and State. Each of these simulated exercises provides new insight into what a real emergency might look like.
"NASA and FEMA will continue to conduct periodic exercises with a continually widening community of US government agencies and international partners," said Johnson. "They are a great way for us to learn how to work together and meet each other's needs and the objectives laid out in the White House National NEO Preparedness Action Plan."
NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), the European Space Agency's Space Situational Awareness-NEO Segment, and the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) have all been scanning the skies to keep track of dangerous NEOs. There’s no reason to be worried but it is good that organizations are not being complacent when it comes to this.