(CN) - Scientists and engineers crowded inside tense situation rooms in Maryland this week to coordinate worldwide emergency response systems and to defend Earth from an asteroid that is hurtling towards our planet at more than 31,000 miles per hour.
Luckily, the asteroid is the hypothetical focus point of the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference where NASA and other agencies are staging a series of drills to prepare for the possibility of an asteroid striking our planet.
In the five-day scenario, designed by NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies, officials are responding to an asteroid that is travelling on an elliptical orbit around the sun and has a 1-in-50,000 chance of hitting Earth.
The scenario begins with the probability of collision increasing rapidly as international partners scramble into coordinated response patterns.
On Day 3 of the scenario - set for December 30, 2021 - officials announce that a reconnaissance spacecraft has flown to the asteroid and determined it is on a course to strike near Denver, Colorado on April 29, 2027.
“NASA and other space agencies around the world are ramping up work already begun on a fleet of spacecraft that will be launched to the asteroid to deflect it off its impact course with Earth,” the notice said.
On its website, NASA reminds the public that the scenario is only a drill and that there is no known asteroid that is likely to strike the Earth in the next century.
“This webpage does not describe a real potential asteroid impact,” the site says. “This is only an exercise.”
NASA officials added Wednesday that they’ve already identified 90% of the real-life asteroids - that are more than half a mile wide - which would cause catastrophic damage if they impacted Earth, but that more research is needed to locate the remaining ones in the galaxy.
In the drill, scientists are tasked with deciding how best to deflect the asteroid away from Earth. Their options include launching a spacecraft to intercept the asteroid or to hit it with nuclear weapons in order to throw it off course.
If the deflection efforts fail and the asteroid remains on a collision course with Earth, emergency officials around the world would be tasked with orchestrating mass evacuations of the impact zone, which could encompass entire states.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told conference attendees Wednesday that while the planet is in no imminent danger of an asteroid impact, it is still important to chart out how a planetary defense would function.
“This is not about Hollywood,” Bridenstine said. “This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life.”
Bridenstine said the agency plans to launch spacecraft early this decade to intercept real near-Earth objects in order to study them.
One such spacecraft, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, is expected to intercept a small moon orbiting the asteroid Didymos in October 2022 when it will be 6.8 million miles from Earth.
The idea was backed by scientist and television personality Bill Nye, who told attendees Wednesday that the opportunity to examine asteroids could help scientists better understand the critical elements that emerged during the birth of the universe.
This week’s scenario is also preparing scientists and emergency management officials for a real asteroid flyby that is projected to occur in a decade.
The 1,000 foot wide asteroid 99942 Apophis will come within 19,000 miles of Earth on April 13, 2029, NASA officials said in a statement Tuesday, adding that it is rare for an asteroid of this size to pass so closely near Earth.
Paul Chodas, the NASA scientist who designed this week’s planetary defense scenario, said in a statement Tuesday that studying the asteroid will provide researchers with critical data that could be vital for future defensive responses.
"Apophis is a representative of about 2,000 currently known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids," Chodas said. "By observing Apophis during its 2029 flyby, we will gain important scientific knowledge that could one day be used for planetary defense."
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