NASA will hold a drill later this month to test its plan if an asteroid comes hurtling toward Earth — and no, it doesn’t involve calling Bruce Willis.
Since the asteroid that scientists are looking at Oct. 12 “poses no threat,” NASA will mobilize to conduct emergency protocols and train for a real life situation, Dr. Michael Kelley of NASA’s planetary science division tells Inverse.
“It’s not the Armageddon scenario where we have 17 hours to do this,” Kelley says. “If you have 17 hours, you’re putting out emergency evacuation orders … it takes years to plan.”
Tracking and analyzing asteroids is nothing new for NASA, who in January 2016 established a new division tasked with following these near-Earth objects. The planetary defense coordination office has had two years to plan how to best deal with potential threats from space and formulate an emergency response, which involves a number of federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as well as the White House.
However, this will be the first time NASA can execute the “front end” of the system, which has only been drawn out on paper up to this point, Kelley says. NASA will test out the efficacy of its communication with a worldwide network of agencies and facilities through a chain of command all the way up to the White House. Although there are a lot of players involved across the network, Kelley says agencies have been receptive to helping NASA simulate a real-time situation.
Scientists have the technology, which includes long-range telescopes, infrared radars, and satellite images, to get the best possible reading of what an asteroid looks like and where it’s heading long before it would put Earth in danger.
But this upcoming drill involves a key component — a real live asteroid. The asteroid, dubbed 2012 TC4, is estimated to be 30 to 100 feet in length, which is about the same size as the meteor that hit Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013, which exploded in mid-air causing property damage and minor injuries.
Next week’s asteroid could at its closest be 4,200 miles away from the Earth’s surface — for context, the moon is 239,000 miles away. This unfortunately means that it’s highly unlikely a “backyard astronomer” with a telescope will be able to see the asteroid, Kelley says.
“When it gets to its absolute brightest, it’s actually going to be over Antarctica,” he says. “So unless you have a fairly decent telescope and you happen to be in Antarctica, you’re not going to see it when it’s at its absolute closest.”
NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson has outlined three possible strategies if NASA had to forcibly stop an asteroid from colliding with the Earth.
However, the agency is not anywhere close to serious developing or constructing these techniques. After all, Kelley says, this is simply an “observing campaign.”
“Just like you would for a fire drill,” Kelley says, “you never plan on being stuck in a building when it’s on fire, but you have the fire drills just in case. That’s what these exercises are all about.”
So no, the world probably isn’t ending anytime soon. If you’re bummed about that, take comfort in the fact that soon enough, you’ll be able to book a seat on the next rocket heading into space..