How NASA would alert the public about an apocalyptic asteroid strike

How NASA would alert the public about an apocalyptic asteroid strike


A government agency that monitors extinction events explained how they would warn the planet’s eight billion people about impending doom if a devastating asteroid was hurtling toward Earth.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office has been tasked with identifying an incoming threat decades in advance. Just last month, the agency said Earth was in the clear from a projected 1 in 10 million chance of a collision on March 3.

“We definitely want to find all those before they find us,” Lindley Johnson, Lead Program
Executive for the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, told Business Insider Saturday.

Johnson’s office keeps track of the 2,300 known asteroids in the solar system, with an especially watchful eye on the 150 or so that could cause an extinction event.

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and the International Asteroid Warning Network are tasked with tracking any space rocks that threaten to come too close to Earth. Getty Images/iStockphoto

If a doomsday impact was imminent, a global coalition of astronomers called the International Asteroid Warning Network would be warned. If they agreed with the threat, the situation would be escalated.

“I don’t have a red phone on my desk or anything,” Johnson said. “But we do have formal
procedures by which notification of a serious impact would be provided.”

If the asteroid was heading towards the US and did not appear large enough to impact other countries, the White House would be notified and a public statement would be issued.

If the space rock was expected to have an international impact, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs would get involved.

A mass extinction event would be avoided with advance intel and new deflection techniques, officials claim. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Such a scenario was lampooned in the 2021 Netflix satire “Don’t Look Up,” as greed and ineptitude led US leaders to fail in their response to an impending space rock that ended up wiping out humanity.

However, NASA has tested one option that was weighed by the film’s fictional officials — diverting a dangerous asteroid with a human projectile.

The agency rammed a small spacecraft into a 530-foot-wide space rock millions of miles away at 15,000 miles per hour in 2022, successfully diverting its course in a test run of a potentially Earth-saving mission.

NASA plans to try more deflection methods in the future, including a “gravity tractor” technique, where a spacecraft would be deployed to shadow an asteroid and pull it out of orbit with gravity.

Officials are also looking into the possibility of using an ion beam to shift the course of the space rock.

This orbital diagram from CNEOS’ close approach viewer shows 2023 BU’s trajectory (red) during its close approach with Earth on Jan. 26. NASA / JPL-Caltech

However, those options would not be viable if the asteroid was detected less than five years before an impending impact, and if there were only a few months of warning, there wouldn’t be much to be done to avert the crisis, according to the article.

The next potential collision scientists have identified is in 2182.

There is a 1 in 2,700 chance that Bennu, a small near-Earth asteroid, will collide with Earth that year, according to NASA. In order for that to happen, Bennu would need to passes through a “gravitational keyhole” in 2135.

The advance notice will hopefully help the human race avoid the type of catastrophe comically depicted in “Don’t Look Up.”

“That gives us plenty of time to then try to do something about them while they’re still in space,
so that we completely avoid any catastrophe here on Earth,” Johnson said.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson speaks before the unveiling of the first public display of a sample from the Bennu asteroid at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on November 03, 2023. The sample was collected during the OSIRIS-REx mission. Getty Images

Such a collision would trigger an explosion equal to 24 nuclear bombs, according to the article.

An asteroid would have to be at least 460 feet across and intersect Earth’s orbit at half the distance to the sun or less to be considered “potentially hazardous.”

When the six-mile-wide Chicxulub creator struck the area around Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula 66 million years ago, its shock wave was two million times more powerful than a hydrogen bomb, according to the report.

A similar mass extinction impact would crumble cities and trigger tsunamis while leaving a cloud of hot debris that would blot out the sun and freeze the planet, making it inhospitable to most life.

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