NASA finds humanity would totally fumble asteroid defense

Earthly politics and mission planning no match for fast-moving rocky orb

Earth possesses "limited readiness" to "quickly implement" needed space missions to defend itself against a devastating asteroid strike, even with 14 years' notice.

In an exercise involving multiple US government agencies during April 2024, NASA conducted a so-called "tabletop" game in which participants plot their response to a 72 percent chance that an asteroid may hit Earth in 14 years. The results were sobering.

Underpinning a bewildering number of moving parts is the likelihood that space agencies are not ready to implement the operations needed to find out more about the threat and mitigate it, even with more than a decade to prepare.

"The process for making decisions about space missions in an asteroid threat scenario remains unclear. The process has not been adequately defined in the US or internationally," the report says.

That's right. Not only are we not sure if we have the capacity to launch the space mission, but we're also not sure about the process required to decide which one to launch.

The game also found that the "role of the UN-endorsed Space Mission Planning and Advisory Group (SMPAG) in an asteroid impact threat scenario is not fully understood by all participants."

As a result of these two expected shortcomings, NASA recommends the international community establishes a process for deciding which options to pursue in different planetary defense scenarios and conduct an exercise to test that process. It also says organizations should be informed about SMPAG's role as a coordination and advisory group.

That, if anything, is the simple stuff. It gets really complicated when we consider the sustained effort required, political will, and public communication.

The purely imaginary scenario examines how authorities would react to the information that there is a 72 percent chance of an asteroid hitting Earth on July 12, 2038. There are many large uncertainties and no new ground observations are possible for seven months. The asteroid might be between 60 and 800 meters across, although it's most likely to be between 100 and 320 meters. There is a 45 percent chance it will affect no one, a 47 percent chance it will affect more than 1,000 people, a 28 percent chance it will affect more than 100,000 people, an 8 percent chance it will affect more than a million people, and a 0.04 percent chance it will affect more than 10 million people.

The likely strike path takes in cities across Mexico, the United States, Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Those puzzling over the answers found that as well as the shortcomings in launching space missions, there was also a problem with global politics and collaboration.

"Sustaining the space mission, disaster preparedness, and communications efforts across a 14-year timeline would be challenging due to budget cycles, changes in political leadership, personnel, and ever-changing world events," the report says.

It recommends "periodic briefings and exercises to continue to raise awareness of planetary defense and increase readiness for preparation and response to an asteroid impact threat."

Speaking to US public radio service NPR, Terik Daly, planetary defense section supervisor at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said experts didn't know of any asteroids of a substantial size that are going to hit Earth for the next hundred years.

But he also assured inhabitants of Earth that "we don't know where most of the asteroids are that are large enough to cause regional devastation."

One of the most significant takeaways from the exercise is that we need the capability to find out more information about the asteroid.

But don't worry, it might never happen. And if it does, we'll figure something out and muddle through. Just don't look up. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like