Over the past week, I watched as the world’s leading scientists, engineers, physicists and thinkers tried to come up with ways to save millions of people from impending doom. They had full access to all of this planet’s collective technology behind them, an unlimited budget and six months to find a solution. They came up with some pretty interesting ideas, but ultimately none of them were successful.
As the days ticked by, I kept thinking that things might have been different if the scientists had access to Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Ben Affleck from Armageddon, or maybe Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman and Téa Leoni from that far less well-known movie released the same year (Deep Impact). But it turns out that without Hollywood magic, Earth is doomed if a large asteroid ever comes calling.
This possibility of a big asteroid hitting Earth was the subject of last week’s Planetary Defense Conference Exercise run by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). It was a virtual conference this year because of the current real-life crisis involving COVID-19, but was attended by members of the European Space Commission, other officials and experts from around the world.
The scenario presented over the four-day conference was deceptively simple. A moderately sized asteroid was detected 35 million miles away from Earth. There is a chance that it will impact Earth sometime in October, giving scientists six months to come up with a plan to keep humanity from following the path of the dinosaur.
On the first day of the conference, I was pretty sure that our best and brightest would be able to save us. After all, NASA has been tracking asteroids that veer close to Earth for years now. We even have a Planetary Defense Coordination Office to handle things like this, to say nothing of similar counterparts at space agencies around the world. I figured six months would be quite the softball scenario, and the scientists would easily hit this one out of the park.
Each day of the four-day conference moved the asteroid a little closer to Earth, while also providing participants more information to work with. But even given the simulated six-month window before impact, it started to look like time was already running out.
At first, it seemed like we might be able to use the DART technology from NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which is scheduled to make impact with the Didymos asteroid in the fall of 2022. DART will use a kinetic impact technique, first slowly crashing into Didymos at about four miles per hour in an effort to slightly push it off course. It will then deploy solar panels and activate its NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) to nudge Didymos even further off course.
The problem with the DART scenario is that even in a best-case scenario, it only very slightly moves an asteroid off course. Assuming the NASA vehicle can catch a target while it’s still very far away, then a tiny course deviation spread out over millions of miles might be enough to deflect a rock away from Earth. The asteroid from the conference scenario was too close for DART to work, even if a rocket was prepped and ready to go at a moment’s notice, which it isn’t.
It was suggested that DART might be able to compensate for the closeness of the asteroid by speeding up its initial impact, basically pushing on the gas and hitting the rock at well over the five mile an hour speed limit it normally uses. But the composition of the asteroid was unknown at that point in the scenario, and the fear was that a bigger collision might simply cause the asteroid to break apart, which could eventually cause even more impacts back on Earth.
Of course, like in the movies, the use of nuclear weapons was considered. Teams ran into several problems with that idea too, not the least of which was the fact that international law prohibits the use of nukes in space. Even if those laws could be ignored or bypassed, it’s not like we have nuclear missiles aimed at space just waiting to shoot at wayward rocks. Creating a delivery system would take too much time, and even if we could fire a nuke and hit an asteroid, it might just break it apart. Then you would have the same problem with the high-impact DART solution, with multiple fragments raining down all over the planet. Only now, they would also likely be highly radioactive.
In the end, all the scientists could do in the scenario was to gather as much information about the asteroid as possible and try to estimate where it would land. At that, the scientists were very effective. Using satellites, telescopes and other tools, it was determined that the asteroid from the scenario was much smaller than in the initial estimates. It was only 100 meters in diameter, so it would not trigger an extinction event. Its landing spot was pinpointed to within 15 miles, at a spot in the Czech Republic near the border with Germany and Austria. Impact time was calculated to within one second.
The asteroid hit Earth on the final day of the conference, pounding into the ground and creating a crater that was 185-miles across. The city of Prague was decimated. Munich was heavily damaged. Many of the towns sitting between them were destroyed. And this was a relatively small asteroid impact.
NASA put a positive spin on the event. “Hypothetical asteroid impact exercises provide opportunities for us to think about how we would respond in the event that a sizeable asteroid is found to have a significant chance of impacting our planet,” said Dr. Paul Chodas, director of CNEOS, in describing the conference.
And Dr. Chodas is right. After all, events like the Planetary Defense Conference Exercise are conducted to show what could be done in a real emergency, but also to demonstrate how vulnerable we are to this kind of threat. In a way, it’s the ultimate penetration testing.
Officials from the European Space Union pushed that point in their post-event write-up. “The Space Missions Planning and Advisory Group (SMPAG) has concluded that no space missions could be launched to fictional asteroid 2021 in time to deflect or disrupt it,” the ESA noted.
It’s good that technologies like DART, coupled with better space object detection, may one day protect us from this very frightening form of death from above. And I hope we keep investing heavily in it. The recent scenario demonstrated that we couldn’t collectively stop a relatively small asteroid from hitting our planet, even if we had six months to try. So let’s not wait until a much bigger space rock starts floating our way before we attempt to develop a reliable way to shield every single person living on Earth.
If we fail at this in real life, then nothing else we do—and nothing we have ever done—will matter anymore. And we will suffer the indignity of knowing that we died because we couldn’t outthink a slow-moving chunk of space dirt.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys