The possibility of a catastrophic asteroid on course to slam into Earth is extremely rare – but, experts say it’s just a matter of time before this threat becomes a reality.
To prepare for such an event, NASA has teamed up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a series of exercises intended to simulate an asteroid emergency.
In the most recent exercise, the experts prepared for a hypothetical object 300-800 feet wide approaching far too quickly to be redirected, necessitating a mass evacuation of the metropolitan Los Angeles area with 100 percent chance of impact.
‘It’s not a matter of if – but when – we will deal with such a situation,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
‘But unlike any other time in our history, we now have the ability to respond to an impact threat through continued observations, predictions, response planning and mitigation.’
The simulation was carried out on Oct 25 in El Segundo, California, and allowed the planetary science community to demonstrate the ways in which it would collect, analyze, and share data about an asteroid predicted to collide with Earth.
And, emergency managers explored the ways in which this data could be used to prepare and warn the public, and respond to a potential threat.
The exercise included experts from NASA, FEMA, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, the US Air Force, and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
The initial estimates stated that the impact could happen anywhere on a long stretch of Earth, including a band that crossed the entire US.
But in the fictitious scenario, observations with ground-based telescopes tracking the object for three months determined the chance of impact would actually be 65 percent.
Subsequent observations were then delayed four months due to the asteroid’s positon relative to the sun, and when they resume in May 2017, the hypothetical impact probability had jumped to 100 percent.
By November of that year, the researchers say the fictitious asteroid would strike somewhere along a path between Southern California and the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
This scenario describes a timeframe that’s too short to feasibly conduct a deflection mission, meaning the emergency managers must evacuate the region.
To do this for the hypothetical emergency, the researchers presented models of the predicted impact footprint, population displacement estimates, and data on the infrastructure damage that would result.
‘The high degree of initial uncertainty coupled with the relatively long impact warning time made this scenario unique and especially challenging for emergency managers,’ said FEMA National Response Coordination Branch Chief Leviticus A. Lewis.
‘It’s quite different from preparing for an event with a much shorter timeline, such as a hurricane.’