(CN) – The federal government must begin to take steps now to prepare for a potentially catastrophic collision between an asteroid and Earth, NASA said in a report released Tuesday.
The National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan outlines short- and long-term goals on how to better detect an interstellar threat and “deflect and disrupt” it, including using possible nuclear weapons against an oncoming asteroid or comet.
The 20-page report comes days after the Trump administration announced plans to create another military branch focused on space warfare.
Experts say the possibility of a natural disaster from a space-born object is not science fiction.
In 2013, an asteroid measuring 20 meters in size exploded in the atmosphere over Russia, damaging buildings and injuring over a thousand people. The blast was the equivalent of 30 atomic bombs.
The report estimates there are more than 10 million near-earth objects more than 20 meters in size.
A hundred years ago, another asteroid – this one between 40 and 60 meters in size – caused a shockwave that flattened more than 770 square miles of forest near the Stony Tunguska River in Yeniseysk Governorate, Russia.
If another interstellar object of that size hit a metropolitan area, the report warns, there could be millions of deaths. NASA estimates there are more than 300,000 such asteroids near earth.
“The nation already has significant scientific, technical and operation capabilities that are relevant to asteroid impact prevention,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer, in a statement. “Implementing the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan will greatly increase our nation’s readiness and work with international partners to effectively respond should a new potential asteroid impact be detected.”
That response could include “kinetic impactors,” which is a spacecraft that crashes into the asteroid to change its orbit, and “gravity tractors,” a rocket or spaceship positioned to slowly change the orbit of the object.
But the recommendations also include using nuclear weapons.
The multi-agency plan directs several government agencies to sketch out the resources and money needed to develop the procedures and technology necessary for detection and deflection of asteroids and comets over the next decade. The report also calls for international cooperation.
The government’s concern over near-earth objects is not new. NASA has studied cosmic hazards since the 1970s. In the 1990s, the agency developed project “Spaceguard” to better detect asteroids orbiting near earth. In 2016, NASA launched the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Over the last 13 years, the number of near earth objects cataloged by NASA has increased significantly.