CM – Lessons learned from a simulated asteroid strike

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May 3, 2021

from the European Space Agency

In an alternative reality that is taking place at this year’s international planetary defense conference, a fictitious asteroid crashes over Europe and « destroys » a region around 100 km wide near the Czech Republic and the German border. The scenario has been presented, but the participants are very real and the lessons learned will affect our ability to respond to dangerous asteroids for years to come.

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Natural hazards come in different forms and occur with different frequencies. Some are relatively common events with localized impacts such as floods and forest fires. Others appear only once in a blue moon, but can hit the entire planet, such as B. global pandemics and asteroid strikes.

However, the asteroid threat is unique: an asteroid impact is the most predictable natural disaster we will face, and if we are warned enough, we basically have the technology to do this completely In the past few decades, the field of planetary defense has made remarkable strides – humanity has now spread telescopes around the planet searching for dangerous space rocks, the largest of which have all been discovered, and this year we’re launching one Mission in charge of testing asteroid deflection for the first time.

The good news is that with giant asteroids the size of a dinosaur extinction, we’re pretty sure we found everyone out there. Because of their size, they are easy to spot. But the smaller they get, the more we have to find out why the impact of this year’s Asteroid 2021 PDC was such an important lesson: We can only prevent what we can predict.

(Although this scenario is realistic in many ways , it is completely fictional and does NOT describe an actual asteroid impact.)

It all started on April 19, 2021 when the near-Earth object survey project Pan-STARRS discovered a new asteroid. It quickly became clear that this asteroid would be worryingly likely to hit Earth in just six months.

Further observations confirmed what the international community had feared, one effect was certain. However, the size of the object remained unclear and was between 35 and 700 meters in diameter.

As would be the case if a real asteroid were on a collision course, the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) – a network of organizations that detect, track and characterize potentially dangerous asteroids – weekly updates on the likelihood of impact as the situation unfolded.

At the same time, the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) began examining our options to prevent the impact. However, the time is short and we are still not sure how big the object is. Most of the options for deflecting an asteroid – such as high-energy impact deflection, a « gravity tractor », or an « ion beam shepherd » – work by only lightly nudging the targeted space rock. However, if this is done far enough in advance, a small initial push will build up, causing a large shift in position as the asteroid approaches Earth.

On the third day of the conference, the scenario jumps two months to March 30th June ahead, less than four months before the imaginary asteroid would strike. At this point in time, the SMPAG comes to the conclusion that no space missions can be started in time to divert or disrupt the 2021 PDC from its collision course.

Such a scenario in which an asteroid impact with a brief warning of only a few months It is predicted that prevention in space poses a challenge.

Asteroids in our solar system do not appear out of nowhere, they have been in orbits around the sun for thousands, millions of years. As with annual meteor showers, we can calculate with great certainty when an asteroid will be back.

If a more sensitive asteroid survey such as NEOSM or the Rubin Observatory (LSST) had been conducted in 2014, they would almost certainly have 2021 PDC on an earlier trip discovered around the sun, and this seven year warning would have opened a host to various possible outcomes. In particular, space missions for a reconnaissance mission would have been possible to find out more about the size and composition of the asteroid, or a simple diversion mission with a kinetic impactor would have gotten them out of the way.

Telescopes and sky surveys such as the PanSTARRS or Catalina sky survey and many more discover new near-earth objects (NEOs) every day. ESA is expanding this global network with its upcoming network of high-tech flyeyes.

ESA’s test bed telescope, the second of which was recently installed in La Silla, South America, is a joint venture with ESO that provides follow-up observations of NEOs will perform efficiently. The first Flyeye telescope is currently under construction and will be installed on a mountaintop in Sicily, Italy with an insect-inspired design that allows it to cover large regions of the sky much faster than traditional designs.

Investments like this one as well as those ongoing worldwide are fundamental to protecting us from dangerous asteroids. We have to find them before we can do anything about it.

This year’s conference, like most of the events in recent months, was entirely online. As many participants noted, preparing for one disaster in the midst of another had a singular sharpness, a not-so-subtle reminder that improbable but catastrophic events are very real and must be prepared for.

Disaster management experts, local governments, Mission planners and policy experts regularly look back at past events to see what worked and what went wrong. On the fourth day of the conference, lessons were learned from previous disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, as well as lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crucial is the need to invest in research and technology, including governments and local authorities prepare more realistic exercise scenarios, understand how different populations with different needs, including the most vulnerable in society, can be protected, and provide clear and transparent information and advice to the general public.

« An important lesson was that we have to plan in the longer term how we can identify, track and ultimately mitigate potentially dangerous asteroids, « says Detlef Koschny, Head of the ESA Office for Planetary Defense.

 » Only think in annual or half-yearly planning cycles, like many budgets at public institutions fes is not good enough to counter a risk that has existed for hundreds of millions of years. « 

Finally, one thing is clear: an asteroid impact, while unlikely, is likely to happen sooner or later – so it is best to be prepared for it.

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