Asteroid Day

This year’s Asteroid Day will mark the 110th anniversary of the Tunguska event, when the largest recorded asteroid to collide with Earth struck Siberia. The area of damage was nearly equal to the size of Rhode Island, alarming the international community of its own lack of preparedness. This year, to avoid destruction of that magnitude from other near-Earth objects, the US government shared some of its own preventative measures.

Asteroid Day was not only established to commemorate the catastrophe of 1908 but to raise awareness for the possibility of future threats. The Tunguska asteroid created massive damage, wiping out roughly 80 million trees in a blast that is thought to have measured 5.0 on the Richter scale. More than a century later, scientists are still scrambling to establish monitoring techniques while the public has demanded that protection from asteroids be a top priority to space agencies.

Cumulative number of near-Earth asteroids discovered by year since 1980
Cumulative number of near-Earth asteroids discovered by year since 1980

In June, the US National Science and Technology Council released the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan that outlines the five key efforts to defend Earth from the risk of asteroids. The strategy will be unrolled over the next 10 years and will be led by experts from NASA, FEMA, and other US agencies. Not only will the strategy affect agencies across the US government, but several steps mention the need for collaboration at an international level.

1. Enhancing NEO Detection and Tracking

The first and most important strategic objective for the government is to improve NASA’s tracking and detection capabilities. The space agency has been conducting an NEO survey program since 1998, but more recently has worked with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope under construction in Chile, which is expected to become operational by 2023. This advanced telescope is integral to the strategy for tracking NEOs and cataloging data to improve detection.

2. Improve NEO Prediction

The document outlines the way it intends to boost nationwide preparedness through quantitative modeling and analysis. This includes an interagency modeling group comprised of the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, as well as its National Protection and Programs Directorate, who will work to better predict Earth impact probabilities and possibly identify time and location of imminent NEO impacts.

3. Develop Ways to Deflect NEOs

“There is much that is not known about the orbits, size, and material composition of many NEOs,” the document says. “And it is essential to account for these uncertainties when developing and utilizing technologies for impact prevention.”

In order for the interagency modeling group to succeed, they need to be innovating. NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, is expected to launch after 2020 and will crash into the asteroid Didymos to test its ability to change the orbit or path of an NEO. In addition to DART, NASA intends to invest in the development of several new technologies that can observe NEOs over many years to map their orbits and future trajectories.

Illustrative timeline of the potential phases of operations in a NEO threat scenario.
Illustrative timeline of the potential phases of operations in a NEO threat scenario.

4. Collaborate With International Space Agencies

This should be a no-brainer. Anyone who’s watched Independence Day knows there’s nothing quite like an extraplanetary problem to bring the planet together. In addition to the State Department’s own foreign relations building, NASA will cooperate with other nations’ space agencies to synthesize data on all NEOs.

5. Practice NEO Emergency Procedures

Think of it as a fire drill, just way more bureaucratic. The government is working across several departments to develop exercise procedures and “action plans” in the event of the worst-case scenario. The US is also developing a protocol with foreign governments to ensure emergency preparedness and reduce physical and economic harm regardless of the location of impact. Should the first four plans fail, these “exercises” will prepare governments in sending first responders.

In the new plan, NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which is normally tasked with announcing potential space hazards, will work with FEMA to streamline how these messages are conveyed to the public in the event of an imminent disaster. The two agencies will work together to establish evacuation routes and other life-saving information during an asteroid-related emergency.

Since 2005, the overall number of cataloged NEOs has increased by five times, meaning that the more the US government invests in these strategies, the more obvious it becomes that these strategies were needed. This action plan aims to enhance the NEO detection capabilities not just in the US but internationally. When it comes to extraplanetary threats, we’re all in this together.