Fictional Event – What Happened When The World’s Space Agencies Simulated a Killer Asteroid Impact?

Recently, a group of space experts from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came together to conduct a simulation experiment to test our management of an impending disaster due to a direct asteroid hit on Earth.

They simulated the following “Fictional Event”-

On 29 April 2027, a terrible and world-changing event occurred. A 60-metre (200-foot) asteroid called 2019 PDC entered Earth’s atmosphere at a shocking speed of 19 kilometers per second (43,000 mph) and impacted over New York’s Central Park. Up to 20 megatons of energy were released in the airburst – 1,000 times the energy of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That asteroid was, of course, hypothetical; but one day it could be a real scenario.

Unfortunately, our response was not great.

The experiment names as the ‘IAA Planetary Defense Conference’, ran over five days, but the timeframe in the simulation was 8 years. It was assumed that the hypothetical asteroid was detected on 26 March 2019 giving us nearly a decade before the fatal impact to work out a solution.

In the hypothetical scenario, AFP reports that the team came up with the following response:

  • By 2021 NASA sent out a reconnaissance mission to study the asteroid’s size, orbit, and composition in detail
  • Then, in 2024, three probes were launched to collide with the space rock in an attempt to push it away. But, true to a Hollywood disaster movie, even though the main body of the asteroid was deflected, a fragment measuring 50-80 meters broke off and was still moving on track to collide with Earth.
  • The US government contemplated using a nuclear bomb to deflect the rock, political disagreements never let the plan take off. So, people were evacuated, and the asteroid chunk hit on 29 April 2027.

The result of the impact was disastrous, flattening a 15-kilometer radius and completely destroying Manhattan. The massive airburst meant no survivors within 32 square miles with extensive damage as far as 68 kilometers from the point of collision.

So, basically the fictional event showed our impending doom.

But did we learn anything from this hypothetical experiment? The setup gave rise to endless questions like- “ how long we would need to evacuate that many people, where they would go, how would citizens behave during such a disaster and how we would protect things like nuclear facilities” to name a few.

Effectively managing such a disaster requires much more than just experts dealing with the situation in space. Conducting such experiments and running these simulations will definitely help explore potential responses to the many logistical problems possible on the ground as well.

Victoria Andrews, NASA’s deputy planetary defense officer asked AFP, “If you knew your home was going to be destroyed six months from now, and that you weren’t going back again, would you keep paying your mortgage?”

The ESA blog explains, ”Asteroid impacts are the only natural disaster we have the power to prevent, and which we can find out about years or decades in advance”.

Up-to-date technologies like the powerful telescopes around the globe and the Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre – are enabling the discovery of potentially problematic asteroids and future technologies like NASA’s DART spacecraft will expectantly be instrumental in protecting us.

Rüdiger Jehn, ESA’s Head of Planetary Defense, explained at the start of the week, “The first step in protecting our planet is knowing what’s out there. Only then, with enough warning, can we take the steps needed to prevent an asteroid strike altogether, or to minimise the damage it does on the ground.”

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