Can We Prevent an Asteroid Impact with 14 Years’ Notice in 2038? NASA Investigates

NASA has warned that with a 72% chance of an asteroid striking Earth in 14 years, we might not be adequately prepared, as disclosed in their findings from the fifth biennial Planetary Defense Interagency Tabletop Exercise.

In this hypothetical scenario, although there are no known significant asteroid impact threats for the foreseeable future, NASA believes we may not be sufficiently ready even with substantial warning time.

“Participants considered potential national and global responses to a hypothetical scenario where a newly detected asteroid had, according to initial calculations, a 72% chance of hitting Earth in approximately 14 years,” NASA disclosed in its findings.

Preliminary observations were insufficient to precisely determine the asteroid’s size, composition, and long-term trajectory, suggesting we may not be fully equipped to tackle it.

Hypothetical exercises like these provide insights by exploring the risks, response options, and opportunities for collaboration posed by varying scenarios, from minor regional damage to potential global catastrophes during an asteroid hit.

“To complicate this year’s hypothetical scenario, essential follow-up observations would have to be delayed for at least seven months – a critical loss of time – as the asteroid passed behind the Sun as seen from Earth’s vantage point in space,” NASA said.

NASA released a summary of this critical exercise, organized by the Planetary Defense Coordination Office in partnership with FEMA and the US Department of State Office of Space Affairs. The exercise aimed to assess the nation’s readiness to respond to the threat of a hazardous asteroid or comet, despite no current significant impact threats.

Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer emeritus at NASA Headquarters in Washington, emphasized the unique nature of asteroid impacts. “A large asteroid impact is potentially the only natural disaster humanity has the technology to predict years in advance and take action to prevent,” Johnson said.

The exercise allowed participants to confront a challenging scenario where follow-up observations were delayed for seven months due to the asteroid’s position behind the Sun, complicating efforts to determine its size, composition, and trajectory.

Held in April at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the exercise brought together nearly 100 representatives from various US government agencies and, for the first time, international collaborators.

This exercise marked the first use of data from NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission. The DART spacecraft’s successful impact on the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos in 2022 demonstrated the viability of using a kinetic impactor to alter an asteroid’s path.

NASA is also developing the NEO Surveyor, an infrared space telescope designed to detect and characterize potentially hazardous near-Earth objects long before they pose a threat. It is slated for launch in June 2028.

Established in 2016, NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office spearheads the agency’s efforts to monitor and address potential asteroid threats.

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