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Planetary Defense: Practicing for Doomsday Should a Global Killer Asteroid Strike

That’s the scenario NASA and FEMA cooked up for their recent Planetary Defense exercise, a crucial step in safeguarding our planet from a potential cosmic collision with an asteroid or a comet.


Representatives from NASA, FEMA, and the planetary defense community participate in the 5th Planetary Defense Interagency Tabletop Exercise to inform and assess our ability as a nation to respond effectively to the threat of a potentially hazardous asteroid or comet. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL/Ed Whitman

Imagine a giant rock hurtling through space, unseen until it has a 72% chance of slamming into Earth in 14 years. That’s the scenario NASA and FEMA cooked up for their recent Planetary Defense exercise, a crucial step in safeguarding our planet from a potential cosmic collision with an asteroid or a comet.

It is like something out of a 1990 action movie. Remember Bruce Willis in “Armageddon”? In that movie NASA saved the world from an asteroid strike. However, what was portrayed then was not something that could have been done at the time. Now that may have changed.

These biennial exercises aren’t just about doomsday prepping; they’re about international collaboration and honing our response to a threat unlike any other. While there are currently no known imminent asteroid threats, these exercises highlight the importance of being prepared for the “unknown unknowns.”

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The latest exercise threw a curveball at participants. The hypothetical asteroid, never spotted before, had a high impact probability – 72% – but a critical limitation: for seven crucial months, it would be hidden from view behind the Sun. This lack of data – the asteroid’s size, composition, and precise trajectory – made planning a response even more challenging.

“The uncertainties in these initial conditions allowed participants to consider a particularly challenging set of circumstances,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer emeritus at NASA Headquarters. Unlike most natural disasters, a large asteroid impact could potentially be foreseen years in advance, giving humanity a unique window for intervention. But that intervention requires meticulous planning and coordinated action on a global scale.

Held in April 2024 at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, the exercise brought together nearly 100 representatives. This year marked a significant milestone: for the first time, the exercise included international collaborators alongside participants from various U.S. government agencies.

This emphasis on international cooperation reflects the reality of a potential asteroid threat. No single nation possesses the resources or expertise to tackle such a global challenge. The exercise provided a platform for experts from different countries to share knowledge, develop communication protocols, and identify areas for collaboration.

Leviticus “L.A.” Lewis, a FEMA detailee to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, emphasized the importance of proactive disaster preparedness. “Our mission is helping people before, during, and after disasters,” he said. FEMA’s experience in coordinating disaster response efforts translates directly to the potential aftermath of an asteroid impact. The exercise allowed FEMA to refine its role in interagency coordination, ensuring a unified and effective response if a real threat ever emerges.

This year’s exercise held a special significance. It was the first to incorporate data from NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. Launched in November 2021, DART aimed to be the first in-space demonstration of a technique known as a kinetic impactor. In September 2022, DART successfully slammed into Dimorphos, a moonlet orbiting the asteroid Didymos, altering its trajectory ever so slightly.

The DART mission was a resounding success, proving that deflecting an asteroid through a direct collision is a viable option. However, the exercise served as a stark reminder – applying such technology to a real-world threat requires years of advance planning. The ability to detect and characterize an asteroid threat early is critical for a successful deflection mission.

The Planetary Defense exercise serves as a springboard for ongoing efforts to safeguard our planet. This includes enhanced detection capabilities: Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection is paramount. NASA, along with international partners, is continuously searching for asteroids and comets that could potentially pose a threat. Advance warning is crucial for planning deflection missions or mitigating impact effects.

Also, knowing an asteroid’s size, composition, and internal structure is essential for determining the best deflection strategy. Telescopic observations and potential future space missions dedicated to characterizing NEOs are crucial in this aspect.

The DART mission was a groundbreaking first step, but more research and development are needed. Scientists are exploring various deflection techniques, such as gravity tractors and nuclear pulse devices, each with its own advantages and limitations.

No nation can go it alone. The Planetary Defense exercise highlighted the importance of fostering international partnerships, sharing data and expertise, and developing coordinated response plans. This collaboration is critical for ensuring a unified global response to a potential asteroid threat.

The Planetary Defense exercise may seem like a futuristic simulation, but it represents a vital step in safeguarding our planet. By bringing together experts from around the world, these exercises ensure we are prepared for the unthinkable. While the chances of an imminent asteroid impact might be low, the potential consequences are simply too great to ignore. Through ongoing vigilance, technological advancements, and international cooperation, we can ensure that humanity will survive.



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