NASA Simulation Explores Fending Off A Catastrophic Asteroid Impact Threat

hero asteroid approaching earth
NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), conducted the fifth biennial Planetary Defense Interagency Tabletop Exercise this week. The tabletop exercise gathering aimed “to inform and assess the ability as a nation to respond effectively to the threat of a potentially hazardous asteroid or comet.”

While there are no current threats of a significant asteroid impact in the foreseeable future, NASA and other agencies do not want to get caught off guard if one were ever found. By conducting these tabletop exercises, NASA remarked it gained valuable insights by exploring risks, response options, and opportunities for collaboration in varying scenarios. The varying scenarios range from incidents with minor regional damage, with little warning, to potential global disasters predicted years or decades in advance.

“The uncertainties in these initial conditions for the exercise allowed participants to consider a particularly challenging set of circumstances,” remarked Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer emeritus NASA Headquarters in Washington. “A large asteroid impact is potentially the only natural disaster humanity has the technology to predict years in advance and take action to prevent.”

planetary defense meeting

Participants of the exercise focused on potential national and global responses to a hypothetical situation where a never-before detected asteroid, with a 72% chance of impacting Earth in about 14 years, was identified. However, preliminary observations could not determine the asteroid’s size, composition, and long-term trajectory. To further complicate the scenario, essential follow-up observations would be delayed for at least seven months, considered being a critical loss of time, as the asteroid passed behind the Sun.

In a Quick-Look Report posted by NASA, a couple of key takeaways were that the 14-year timeline complicates decision making when large uncertainties still exist, and clear support for international collaboration at all stages is a must. A few key gaps listed were: Decision-making processes and risk tolerance not understood. Limited readiness to quickly implement needed space missions. Timely global coordination of messaging needs attention. Asteroid impact disaster management plans are not defined.

The recent tabletop exercise was also the first to use data from NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission. DART successfully impacted asteroid moonlet Dimorphos on September 26, 2022, confirming a kinetic impactor could change the trajectory of an asteroid.

There were nearly 100 representatives at the tabletop exercise from across US government agencies, as well as international collaborators on planetary defense for the first time. Johnson remarked, “These outcomes will help to shape future exercises and studies to ensure NASA and other government agencies continue improving planetary defense preparedness.”