Nasa is going to pretend a deadly asteroid is on its way, to practice for a real one.
The “tabletop exercise” will allow the space agency and the other government organizations that will be tasked with responding to such an event to simulate their response, ahead of the possibility of a real example.
The scenario will see a very realistic but nonetheless fictional disaster, in which an asteroid will be headed for Earth. The scenario has been developed by one of the Nasa organizations tasked with studying such near-earth objects, or NEOs.
It will bring together not just Nasa but other international organizations to test out their response. Such exercises are used across the disaster response sector, to ensure that the real responses are as fast and effective as possible.
“These exercises have really helped us in the planetary defense community to understand what our colleagues on the disaster management side need to know,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer. “This exercise will help us develop more effective communications with each other and with our governments.”
Nasa and other organizations have spent more than 20 years scanning the skies for NEOs, looking for asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit. Groups such as Nasa’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) as well as the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness-NEO Segment and the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) have been working to better communicate the danger that such objects pose to Earth.
As part of that mission, officials will play out such a scenario in an attempt to demonstrate how Earth might respond.
There is no strict script in such an exercise. Instead, it will be used to test out how NEO observers, space agency officials, emergency managers, decision-makers and citizens would respond to the threat of an impact, and how that might become clear.
It will start with the story that on 26 March, astronomers have found a NEO that could be hazardous to Earth. They will be told that it has been tracked for a few months and that it has a one in 100 chance of hitting Earth in 2027 – the chances that would require action from people on Earth.
Those taking part will discuss possible preparations: how they would explore the asteroid, work out the best ways of deflecting it and dealing with its impact effects.
Nasa has already participated in such exercises, working on some with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Those exercises brought representatives from a variety of different federal agencies, including the departments of Defense and State.
Previous exercises showed that the focus of emergency management officials was not on scientific details. Instead, they just want to know when, where and how an asteroid will hit the Earth, as well as what sort of damage is done, according to FEMA.
Nasa continues to work on that science, however, in an attempt to better improve humanity’s ability to predict the exact location and effects of any impact.
“NASA and FEMA will continue to conduct periodic exercises with a continually widening community of US government agencies and international partners,” said Leviticus Lewis of the Response Operations Division for FEMA. “They are a great way for us to learn how to work together and meet each other’s needs and the objectives laid out in the White House National NEO Preparedness Action Plan.”