After a year full of asteroid fly-bys and near-misses, various government agencies have begun to take notice. FEMA and NASA recently held a joint “war game” to conduct drills about how they could best respond to an incoming deadly asteroid strike, yet despite their efforts, our defenses against such a strike remain weak at best. At least these drills seemed to have finally attracted the attention of American lawmakers, who this week released a new “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy” to begin preparing for a dangerous encounter with a near-Earth object (NEO).
NASA tracks upwards of 15,000 of these near-Earth objects, most of which are small asteroids or meteroids which pose little threat to humanity. Some, however, are much larger and have as-yet unknown orbits which could someday potentially put them on a collision course with Earth. To better prep government agencies for what would happen in the event of one of these collisions, the White House’s own Interagency Working Group for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-bound Near-Earth Objects, or DAMIEN (great name) released a 25-page document which pulls no punches in terms of stressing the dangers of such a strike:
The most recent Congressionally-directed asteroid survey requires that NASA find 90% of objects that are 140 meters in size or greater. Such objects would strike Earth with a minimum energy equivalent of over 60 megatons of TNT, which is more energy than yielded by the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested.
Yikes. The document goes on to list seven strategic goals to prepare the nation for an NEO strike, most of which are concerned with tracking existing objects in in Space and creating communication networks in the event that an NEO with an Earth-striking trajectory is found.
However, one of the goals deals specifically with the aftermath of such a strike, and seems to imply that even the best government agencies don’t really know what such a strike would do to a modern city and would have to go by computer simulations:
While it is expected that a NEO impact emergency response could be similar to a hurricane response plan (including evacuations and other preparations in the event that there is warning before impact) or an earthquake response plan (in the event that there is no warning), NEO impact modeling and simulation will inform specific details.
With the recently-released news that a few near-Earth objects are set to pass close by us in 2017, the importance of such a governmental plan is becoming clearer and clearer. Let’s just hope they don’t know something they don’t want us to.