NASA war games an asteroid impact disaster and it goes bad

NASA and a number of other federal, state, and local organizations staged an asteroid impact on Winston-Salem, North Carolina, according to Scientific American. The scenario featured an asteroid 70 meters in diameter that was spotted just before it entered Earth’s atmosphere. The asteroid would explode eight miles over the city with the power of a 10-megaton nuclear bomb. The blast would devastate the city and surrounding areas, killing thousands.

The exercise delivered a number of sobering conclusions.

First, a few days, a few weeks, or probably even a few months would be too late to spot a destructive space rock headed for Earth for a deep impact. At this point there is no way to stop a killer asteroid. Even the sci-fi movie method of firing a nuclear weapon at it would only make the problem worse by spawning many small radioactive rocks out of one big rock falling over a larger area.

Second, people have become so suspicious of authority, whether from the political class or the media, that a significant number of people would not believe the announcement of a killer asteroid en route. Evacuating a strike zone would be challenging enough if everyone was willing to go, but it’s likely many people would flatly refuse to go.

Of course, every problem has multiple solutions.

NASA’s recent Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, which redirected the course of a distant asteroid, was a huge success. However, DART took five years of planning and execution to make it a reality. We need an asteroid deflection system that can essentially launch on demand. This technology must be constantly tested against approaching asteroids. The US Space Force was to be tasked with developing, testing and maintaining an asteroid diversion unit.

A systematic study of the solar system to locate and categorize near-Earth objects must begin as soon as possible. The NEO Surveyor telescope is to be launched and commissioned. To complement these efforts, the government should pay amateur astronomers a bounty for each previously unknown approaching object they spot.

The exercise also revealed the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation likely to accompany the impending asteroid impact that lacks a quick, technological fix. Social media and ideologically biased TV news are perfect vectors for fomenting confusion and misinformation. An impending asteroid impact will require the combined effort of humanity to avert and, in the worst case, mitigate it.

Widespread public ignorance of space issues has already been documented. But it’s alarming that a certain percentage of people wouldn’t believe an announcement of an impending asteroid impact. Some people would refuse to evacuate from a strike zone no matter what authorities tell them – meaning they would die if an asteroid destroyed their communities.

How could government agencies convince the public that the threat of an asteroid impact is real? The exercise found NASA to be very credible on space issues. Perhaps part of a solution would be to give the space agency the lead in disseminating information about the impending catastrophe.

The best way to deal with an asteroid impact is to prevent it. While an asteroid impact and its aftermath can make for exciting cinema, in real life such an event would be catastrophic in terms of lost lives and treasures.

The asteroid described in the exercise was relatively small. The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago is said to have been about 12 kilometers across, the size of a mountain. Such an asteroid impact would wipe out most life on this planet today and end the human species. There is no mitigation strategy for such a catastrophe.

To protect the planet from asteroid impacts, an effective detection and deflection system must be deployed as soon as possible. Asteroid defense may be expensive, but it would be even more expensive to penetrate even a relatively small space rock.

Some have observed that the dinosaurs died because they lacked a space program. Humans have a space program, several of them do. There is no excuse for not making efforts to prevent doomsday from coming from heaven.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of the space exploration studies Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?, The Moon, Mars and Beyond, and Why is America Going Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.

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