What Space Agencies Learned From a Simulated Asteroid Impact

The artist's impression of ESA's Hera mission, a small spacecraft intended to test whether an asteroid could be displaced to Earth.
The artist’s impression of ESA’s Hera mission, a small spacecraft intended to test whether an asteroid could be displaced to Earth. ESA – ScienceOffice.org

This week, space agencies around the world worked together to figure out how to respond to a large asteroid on Earth. As part of the Planetary Defense Conference, experts planned their response to an imaginary scenario for several days, in which an asteroid hit Europe and destroyed a 60-mile-wide area.

The simulated asteroid was between 35 and 700 meters in diameter and was detected by the Pan-Stars survey and later by the International Asteroid Warning Network. One of the challenges of potentially dangerous asteroids is that there may be limited concrete information about their size and precise route. There will be a lot of uncertainty from seeing an incoming asteroid like this, and it may take months before space agencies have to determine whether an asteroid will definitely affect the planet and where it lands.

The available options for deflecting an asteroid near Earth can make small adjustments to its course to divert it away from the planet, but only if there was enough advance warning. In the case of this scenario, there will not be enough time to deflect the asteroid and it “affects” an area of ​​the Czech Republic near the border with Germany.

To understand how to manage such a situation, researchers looked at disaster management for natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. This year, the impact of COVID-19 was part of the discussion, given the need for research and technology to protect diverse populations. An issue to consider in such a scenario is to conduct an emergency response not only in a large city, for example, but also in more isolated rural areas.

Another topic was the need for continuous planning and preparation for the long term, not to think in terms of the months or years ahead. “A big lesson was that we need more long-term planning on how potentially dangerous asteroids can be detected, tracked and ultimately mitigated,” says Detlef Koschni, head of ESA’s planetary defense office, in a statement. “” Just thinking in annual or bi-annual planning cycles, which is how many budgets are set in public institutions, is not enough to address a risk that has taken hundreds of millions of years to create. “

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