The risk of a cataclysmic asteroid impact might be small, but it could still happen – which is why every two years, scientists and emergency responders co-ordinate their efforts as part of a fictional threat exercise designed to see how civilization would cope if such a scenario were to actually take place.
Part of the International Academy of Astronautics’ Planetary Defense Conference, the simulation this year involved an asteroid that was a mere six months away from colliding with the Earth.
Most of the methods devised to save us from a large asteroid impact involve detecting the space rock while it is still far out in space, thus providing enough time to do something about it.
One possibility, for example, would be to fly a spacecraft into the asteroid – causing a small, but significant change in trajectory that could make all the difference between a hit and a miss.
If the asteroid is very close, however, there may not be enough time for such a mission.
“The best solution to this scenario is not to get into it in the first place,” said NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Officer Lindley Johnson.
In the case of this year’s planetary defense exercise, it wasn’t the outcome that was important (ultimately nothing could be done in the theoretical scenario anyway), but the discussions that went on, the plans that were put into place and the work that was done to predict what would happen.
If we were faced with a situation like this in reality, it would be critical for authorities to co-ordinate their efforts and exercises like this can help to make sure that everyone is as ready as they can be.
Let us hope, however, that it won’t be necessary to put this into practice for real anytime soon.