Asteroid Hits Europe as NASA and Others Unable to Stop It in Impact Game

Impact region for simulated asteroid strike 1 photo
Photo: NASA
Not long ago, a group of scientists, including from NASA, got together In Vienna, Austria, for the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference. Among the many things being discussed there, the scientists played something like an impact game, trying to see how fast the world can react and stop an asteroid bound for Earth. And the grim reality is not only we can't do that fast enough, but there’s absolutely nothing we can do to stop such an event.
The idea behind the exercise was simple. On April 26, those taking part pretended to have discovered a potentially dangerous near-Earth object (NEO) heading our way, and over the coming days they simulated the passage of time, the measures needed to be taken to stop it if need be, and of course the outcome.

Now that the conference is over, NASA published the results of this tabletop exercise, and they are not at all encouraging. Here’s how the whole simulation all went down.

On simulated time April 26, the team discovered an asteroid 35 million miles (57 million km) from Earth, with a 5 percent chance of impacting the planet on or around October 20, 2021. On simulated time May 2, further calculations showed the chances of an impact were now 100 percent, with the asteroid expected to impact somewhere in Europe or northern Africa.

On simulated time June 30, the impact area is narrowed down to Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Scientists now know the asteroid is in between 100 feet (35 meters) and 1,600 feet (500 m) in diameter.

On simulated time October 14, the impact regions shrank even further to include only Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria. Scientists can do nothing to stop it, and the team starts discussing options for evacuation.

During all this time (the teams spent a week in real life turning this scenario upside down), hypothetical options for stopping the asteroid have been discussed. The bottom line is that with our current technology, there’s nothing we can do in just six months to stop a piece of space rock hurtling toward Earth.

First off, deflection was ruled out because too much force was needed to be applied too far in advance. Also, NASA determined that “if confronted with the 2021 PDC hypothetical scenario in real life we would not be able to launch any spacecraft on such short notice with current capabilities.”

Disruption by means of nuclear explosion was considered next, but this has its own issues, as since it was impossible to determine the asteroid’s properties, the team was unable to determine to amount of force needed. As a result, the largest nuclear device available was considered for the mission. NASA calculated that even with this device, the “largest size asteroid that can be disrupted by the NED ranges from ~100 m to ~210 m, for asteroid densities ranging from 5 g/cm3 down to 1 g/cm3.”

Eventually, this plan fell through as well, on account of several factors, including the fact that rendezvous missions have been deemed impractical.

The bottom line of all this? As per NASA, current infrastructure for spacecraft and launch make reconnaissance or mitigation missions impossible in “a short warning scenario if this were a real situation.” Deflection would not be possible also due to the short warning time. Disruption by means of nuclear devices would probably be possible, but remember, we’ll not have the time or spacecraft to launch the thing at the asteroid.

So, if and when we hear an asteroid is heading our way, we’d better run for cover, because despite the pride we take in ourselves, there’s nothing we can do to stop the will of the Universe.

You can find the full details of the exercise in the PDF section below.
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 Download: Space Mission Options for Hypothetical Asteroid Impact (PDF)

About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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