Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

NASA asteroid impact exercise reveals ‘uncertainties’ over global response to space object threats

The tabletop exercise asked participants to address a scenario where, within 14 years, there would be a 72% chance of an asteroid hitting the Earth.

(CN) — NASA released its summary of the fifth biennial Planetary Defense Interagency Tabletop Exercise on Thursday, highlighting the difficulties of addressing a potential asteroid impact.

The summary found there were "key gaps" in understanding how those responding to the crisis would make decisions and assess risk, how ready the world is to launch preventative space missions, how any disasters resulting from an impact could be managed and how nations could coordinate to tailor their messaging to the public.

"The large and varied uncertainties about the potential impact and its consequences posed challenges as participants discussed the scenario and possible responses," NASA reported in the summary.

The exercise, which took place this past April at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, asked participants from multiple U.S. and international organizations to plan for a potential asteroid impact by 2038.

The imaginary asteroid had a 72% of striking the Earth, with an impact trajectory that began in the south Pacific, travelled southwest to northeast over Mexico, the U.S. and north Atlantic, and crossed the Iberian Peninsula into northern Africa. That trajectory put major population centers like Dallas, Washington D.C., Madrid and Algiers in the crosshairs.

The exact size and composition of the asteroid were not given to participants, though they were told that an impact could "devastate a regional-to-country-scale area." The scenario also posited that follow-up observations would be impossible for seven months after the asteroid's initial detection as it passed behind the sun from Earth's line of sight.

This loss of observation time was a major hindrance to participants' ability to quickly and effectively plan a response, something noted in the space agency's key takeaway.

"Better information about the asteroid would reduce uncertainties in the potential consequences of an impact, thereby enabling better decision making about how to respond," NASA wrote.

The report was scant on details as to what the world could actually do to prevent an asteroid strike. It noted only one technology — direct kinetic impact — has ever successfully altered an asteroid's orbit, and on only one occasion.

NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test craft collided with the asteroid Dimorphos in 2022, shortening its orbit around its parent asteroid Didymos by 32 minutes. The collision marks the first and only time humans have intentionally altered the orbit of a natural celestial body.

NASA recommended in the summary that space agencies carry out additional kinetic impact tests, and also experiment with other asteroid deflection technologies such as ion beam shepherds.

Politics would also complicate any asteroid impact response, the exercise participants found. They concluded U.S. leaders would likely be reluctant to act until an impact seemed certain.

“I know what I would prefer [to do], but Congress will tell us to wait,” one participant commented anonymously in the report.

International tensions and lack of trust could further hamper countries' abilities to coordinate on prevention, potential disaster mitigation and on their messaging to the public.

Underscoring the point, NASA reported in a separate press release that this was the first Planetary Defense Interagency Tabletop Exercise to include international partners such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the European Space Agency.

The United Nations-facilitated Space Mission Planning and Advisory Group could possibly help coordinate international efforts, though some exercise participants said they were unclear on what the group actually does.

“International involvement early will be critical. That credibility is essential and must be established now,” one participant reported anonymously.

"The role of the UN-endorsed Space Mission Planning and Advisory Group (SMPAG) in an asteroid impact threat scenario is not fully understood by all participants ... The process for making decisions about space missions in an asteroid threat scenario remains unclear. The process has not been adequately defined in the U.S. or internationally," NASA reported in its summary.

In the fourth, American-only exercise in 2022, a major focus for international considerations was to "improve understanding of international legal and policy implications for nuclear explosive device use for planetary defense."

A note in the summary released Thursday stated international concerns over nuclear planetary defense options "have not been fully resolved."

Despite the uncertainties, more than 75% of participants reported they left the exercise feeling better prepared to deal with the challenges of addressing an asteroid impact. Only a small minority reported strong belief that the world is adequately ready to plan and implement impact prevention missions in space, though about two-thirds at least somewhat agreed that the world is prepared to launch more asteroid reconnaissance missions.

NASA itself hopes to launch its Near-Earth Object Surveyor spacecraft in 2028. NASA reports the surveyor will use infrared imaging devices to detect and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids in Earth's vicinity.

Follow @djbyrnes1
Categories / Government, International, Science, Technology

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.