Artist’s impression of the ESA’s Hera mission, a small spacecraft used to investigate whether an asteroid heading for Earth can be deflected. ESA – ScienceOffice.org
This week, space agencies from around the world came together to find out how to react if a large asteroid hit Earth. As part of the Planetary Defense Conference, experts spent several days planning their response to a fictional scenario in which an asteroid hit Europe and destroyed an area 60 miles wide.
The simulated asteroid had a diameter between 35 and 700 meters and was detected by the Pan-STARRS investigation and then tracked by the International Asteroid Warning Network. One of the challenges posed by potentially dangerous asteroids is that there is limited concrete information about their size and exact path. Observing such an incoming asteroid would bring a lot of uncertainty, and it could be months before space agencies could be sure that an asteroid would definitely affect the planet and where it would land.
The options available to deflect an asteroid approaching Earth could make small adjustments to its course to push it away from the planet, but only if there is sufficient advance warning. If so, there wouldn’t have been enough time to deflect the asteroid, and it “hit” an area of the Czech Republic near the border with Germany.
To understand how to deal with such a situation, the researchers studied disaster management during natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. This year, the impact of COVID-19 was also part of the discussion, which examined the need for research and technology to protect different populations. A problem to consider in such a scenario is not only how to conduct an emergency response in a large city, for example, but also in more remote rural areas.
Another issue was the need for continuous long-term planning and preparation rather than just thinking about the months or year ahead. “An important lesson was that we have to plan in the longer term how we can identify, track and ultimately mitigate potentially dangerous asteroids,” said Detlef Koschny, head of ESA’s Planetary Defense Office, in a statement. “Just thinking about how many budgets are set in public institutions in annual or semi-annual planning cycles is not good enough to counter a risk that has existed for hundreds of millions of years.”