How would people respond if an asteroid hit Earth? That’s what NASA wanted to find out. So this week NASA‘s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) created a simulation.
NASA tested Earth’s mightiest minds with a tabletop exercise this week, imagining a doomsday-level asteroid was hurtling toward Earth. The exercise was held to understand the pathways to Earth’s defense and to recognize the individuals who were valuable in finding a solution.
The exercise was held the week of April 26, beginning with the “discovery” of a fictitious asteroid on the hypothetical date of April 19, 2021. NASA’s Planetary Defense Program spotted, confirmed, and named the imaginary threat “2021PDC.” The simulation placed the asteroid about 35 million miles from Earth, hurtling towards the planet, but with only a 5% chance of impact on or around October 20, 2021.
The defense council then fast-forwarded to May 2, 2021, after 2021PDC’s impact probability is discovered to be 100 percent, a startling and devastating figure. Though it wouldn’t mean the end of all humanity, the asteroid would – despite losing mass on its way – be big enough to wipe out more than half a million people in central Europe or northern Africa.
During the second day of the testing, Earth’s mighty minds concocted a plan to launch a rocket that would attempt to disrupt the asteroid’s trajectory before impact. After discussion, it was determined that the lack of time and adequate technology would prevent that possibility.
Day three was set on June 30, 2021, barely four months before Earth’s imminent annihilation. After continuous observation and advanced monitoring, the asteroid’s trajectory looks to be either Germany, the Czech Republic, or Austria, among other nearby nations. It isn’t until the fourth day (October 14, 2021) when scientists realize that the asteroid is much smaller than predicted. The area and size of destruction will be vastly limited compared to original estimates – a stark positive in relation to the imminent disaster.
Scientists around the world create an evacuation strategy that would minimize mortality rates upon impact. Though the result of a real asteroid hurtling towards Earth would be catastrophic, the test ultimately taught valuable lessons about Earth’s line of defense if a space threat were to present itself. NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, Lindley Johnson admitted that “these exercises ultimately help the planetary defense community communicate with each other and with our governments to ensure we are all coordinated should a potential impact threat be identified in the future.”
The outcome of the test was startling, providing evidence that Earth technology may not be up to the requirements for asteroid defense, Johnson said. But he added: “Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature, we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when.”
This was the seventh impact exercise NASA has participated in. The exercises provide essential training, just as police officers or firefighters might have, to better prepare scientists for potentially life-threatening events. Dr. Paul Chodas, director of CNEOS explained that the “hypothetical asteroid impact exercises provide opportunities for us to think about how we would respond in the event that a sizeable asteroid is found to have a significant chance of impacting our planet.”
Though lives could have been lost if 2021PDC were actually hurtling towards Earth, these thought experiments open up new methodologies that could turn out to be essential in stopping a real-life asteroid from wreaking havoc on our civilization.
People magazine compared the test to the science fiction films of 1998, Armageddon and Deep Impact. The fictitious scenarios in the movies demonstrated potential, if not outlandish attempts to save humanity from an asteroid impact.