Of all the fake emergency scenarios, whether earthquake drills, fire drills, or nuclear bomb drills, there’s a common pattern: Have a plan for when all hell breaks loose. From April 29 to May 3, international scientists at NASA’s Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Maryland are asking themselves the same question in the their seventh-ever asteroid drill: When a space object eventually comes hurtling through the atmosphere, what’s the plan going to be?
NASA has gone to great lengths to ensure that no one actually believes that this is a real asteroid impact scenario. At the top of their press release for the event they include a massive, red banner warning. The so-called Earth-bound asteroid “2019 PDC” notably a letter short (real asteroids have four letter names.) The drill has happened before, but this year, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine made his point clear: No one should take the asteroid drill lightly.
“We have to make sure that people understand that this isn’t about Hollywood, this isn’t about movies, it’s about protecting the only planet we know right now that can host life, and that’s the planet Earth,” Bridenstein said.
Asteroid Drill: Day 1
Once more, this is a fictional scenario.
The asteroid drill begins in a fictional scenario where NASA’s asteroid monitoring systems spot a near-Earth object on March 26, 2019. NASA’s background documents for the scenario reveal that the asteroid comes closer to Earth over the ensuring weeks until April 29, 2019, Day 1 of the real-life Planetary Defense Conference. When the simulation begins, 2019 PDC is predicted to swing by Earth on April 29, 2027 and has a 1 in 100 chance of hitting. In other words, Earth has about eight years to plan a defense strategy.
By the end of Day 1, that’s all the information NASA had released. Day 2, on Tuesday, will likely reveal the first proposed solutions to this fictional asteroid threat.
In the sprit of the simulation, the European Space Agency tweeted a video showing what tension might be like in a space agency that detects a threatening near-Earth object:
How The Asteroid Drill Relates to Real Life
This scenario is inspired to some degree by close calls with space objects in the past, Bridenstine noted in his comments before the conference. In 1908, an object between 40 and 60 meters (131-196 feet) in size exploded over Tunguska, Russia and leveled 2,000 square kilometers of forest. More recently, in 2013, a 65-foot meteor hit Chelyabinsk, Russia and created a shockwave that shattered windows in over 3,600 apartment blocks and caused 1,210 injuries.
The fictional asteroid, at least five times bigger than Chelyabinsk, is intended to test our preparedness for a real doomsday scenario. Bridenstine stated in his remarks that finding near-Earth objects is a “priority of the United States” because of the threats some of the bigger ones pose.
The White House’s 2018 National Near-Earth Object Strategy and Preparedness Plan estimates that nearly 25,000 of those objects are 140 meters (459 feet) in size, which is big enough to “inflict severe damage to entire regions or continents.”
Amy Mainzer, Ph.D., the Principal investigator for NASA’s NEOWISE missions (which have identified 281 near-Earth objects) tells Inverse that we’ve made great progress tracking down potentially hazardous space objects. But when it comes to the big stuff, we still have a ways to go.
“NASA and other observers around the world have made great progress in finding the largest NEOs: more than 95% of near-Earth asteroids larger than 1 km have been found,” says Mainzer. “But about 2/3 of the population of objects larger than 140m remains undiscovered.”
NASA and other global space agencies, like the European Space Agency are already investing in new ways of tracking down near-Earth objects that pose threats. But this scenario will crucially, look to investigate how agencies can work together to help protect the earth once they have this information. As the scenario plays out this week, we’ll get a sense of how that might happen.