NASA Asteroid Threat Practice Drill Shows We’re Not Ready

NASA Asteroid Threat Practice Drill Shows We’re Not Ready

On August 16, 2022 an approximately 70-meter asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere. At 2: 02: 10 P.M. EDT, the space rock exploded eight miles over Winston-Salem, N.C., with the energy of 10 megatons of TNT. The airburst almost levelled the city and its surrounding areas. There were many casualties.

Well, not really. The fourth Planetary Defense Tabletop Exercise was about the destruction of Winston-Salem. It was run by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office .. The exercise was a simulation in which scientists, academics, and government officials practiced how the United States would respond to a real-life asteroid HTML1. Held February 23-24, participants were both virtual and in-person, hailing from Washington D.C., the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) campus in Laurel, Md., Raleigh and Winston-Salem, N.C. The exercise included more than 200 participants from 16 different federal, state and local organizations. The final report was released on August 5. It stated that humanity is not ready to face this threat.

The plus side is that the exercise was meant be difficult–practically impossible to win. Emma Rainey, a senior scientist at APL who helped to create the simulation, says that “we designed it to fall right in the gap in our abilities.” “The participants couldn’t prevent the impact.” The simulation was created to test the various government and scientific networks that should be used in a real-life planetary defense scenario. “We want to determine how effective communications and operations are between U.S. government agency and other organizations involved, and then identify weaknesses,” Lindley Johnson, planetary defence officer at NASA headquarters.

All in all, the exercise showed that the United States does not have the ability to intercept small, fast moving asteroids and that our ability to see them is limited. Even if we were able to intercept space rocks, it is unlikely that we would be able deflect one away. Using a nuclear weapon to eliminate one could also pose international legal problems. The trial also revealed that misinformation, which is false rumors and lies spreading among the public, could severely hamper the official effort. Angela Stickle, APL senior research scientist who designed and facilitated the exercise, says that misinformation is not going anywhere. “We put it in the simulation because it was possible to get feedback on how to counter it and take action if malicious

Several key differences set this practice apart from previous ones in 2013, 2014 and 2016: First, this trial gave NASA’s Planetary Defense Office a chance to stress-test the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan, released by the White House in 2018. The plan details who does what and when in the federal government. This allowed the exercise to include more agencies than previous years, including state and local emergency responders. This simulation was the first to simulate not only the impact but also its immediate aftermath.

Events started with the “discovery” of an asteroid named “TTX22” heading toward Earth. Participants received a crash course on asteroid science. They were told everything they knew about the asteroid, as well as the likelihood of it impacting Earth. Each meeting moved ahead in the timeline with the last installments being set just before and following the impact of the asteroid near Winston-Salem.

The short, but realistic timeline from discovery through impact highlighted major issues from the beginning. TTX22 was small and fast. It was too late to create a mission to study, deflect, or destroy the asteroid by the time it was discovered. NASA does not have a fleet of rockets ready to go in case an asteroid strikes. Shifting the rock’s trajectory would require at least 12 kinetic impactors, each like NASA’s DART mission that recently altered the orbit of the asteroid Dimorphos and which took more than five years to move from concept to rock-puncher. This was the blunt recommendation of the after-action report.

At the same time, the asteroid’s velocity, unknown composition and policy ramifications in the brief timeline ruled out hitting TTX22 with a nuclear bomb. Some participants still considered nuclear disruption an appealing last-ditch option. Stickle states that you could disintegrate an asteroid by sending up a nuclear explosive device. “In theory.”

This option however leans towards Hollywood, not reality. Johnson states that there is a tendency to believe that they saw it in a movie. They just launched ICBMs, and then destroyed it. “This simulation includes this option to help them understand that it’s not so simple. We don’t want to be in .”

if a nuclear explosive device is used in the final phase of an impact.

Blasting a space-bound asteroid could result in a group of smaller, but still-dangerous and fast-moving rocks. A nuclear weapon being detonated in the upper atmosphere can have unintended but most likely deadly effects. Although the explosion may not completely disintegrate the rock it could force some of it to fall elsewhere. Radiation could still exist in the upper atmosphere at levels that make it impossible to travel through it on your journey to space.

There was no way to stop an asteroid hitting Earth. The exercise was about mitigation–what should be done in the immediate aftermath and leading up to it. All levels of organizations needed to be in touch, emergency plans had been developed and implemented, and the public was informed.

Misinformation was constant within the simulated timeline. Many online news stories about the Asteroid were incorrect. “Asteroid deniers” and claims that fake news were growing unabated. Participants found misinformation frustrating and recognized that they needed to confront it in a real-life setting.

Johnson explained his office’s efforts to fight misinformation. Johnson states that NASA wants to establish a Planetary Defense Coordination Office, and other partners to act as the authorities in these situations. “The idea is that the media, and the public, understand that a NASA group tracks and manages these kinds of things .”

Participants pointed out that there are few strategies to deal effectively with the constant stream of lies from hundreds or even thousands of outlets within a short time period. In this instance, misinformation resulted in a fatal toll. “When we discussed evacuation, we were told that 20 percent of people would not leave because it was all fake news or the government was lying or some other reason,” says August Vernon, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County emergency management director. “That was about 200,000 people, all spread out. “So here I am, not sure if we’d be able evacuate the hospitals or prisons, but then we have people who can leave .”


The news had a somber effect on the participants as they waited for the revelations of the simulation’s final “day,” August 16. Vernon was blunt after the academic participants had explained the energy release that the region would experience. “There would be collapsed buildings,” he says, “we’d lose our hospitals, a lot of our infrastructure would be gone, there was a chance this could take out cell phone reception for at least 50 miles, and the whole region would lose power.”

The simulation delivered a final misinformation punch. A post-impact individual claiming to be “National Expert T.X.” An asteroid claimed that the explosion released toxic substances from outer space into our atmosphere. Residents should expect radiation-like symptoms. These baseless claims were all over social networks, and “T.X” was giving interviews for news outlets.

Participants gave NASA high marks for its ability to disseminate data, which was a positive given its credibility. The White House plan was also strong enough to manage information flow between federal and state agencies, and activate all communication channels.

The best results of the exercise were the conversations between federal officials and local officials. Decision-makers at all levels gained new understandings about who would coordinate post-impact rescue efforts and recovery efforts, and what they needed to do. One thing that was discovered was that communication of science can be more difficult at fine-grained levels. Vernon states, “We couldn’t keep up sometimes, so that’s something they should consider.” “I have mayors, fire chiefs, and other people to explain this to. While we don’t need to know the science behind it all, we do need to know where, when, and what to make big decisions .”


Participants also found that the face of an “expert” should shift from the federal level to the local. Vernon says, “At our level we asked who would be our lead spokesperson.” “Who would people trust, respect and believe when we learn it’s heading towards us?” This might not be the NASA person .”

Ultimately, participants and simulation facilitators agreed that time was the greatest thing they lacked. Because of the narrow window between its discovery, and impact, the asteroid decimated Winton-Salem. It is crucial to increase that window. Stickle states that a decade is a reasonable time frame to be able do something that would be successful. Ideal would be thirty years. This would allow for detailed observations, planning and building a spacecraft. It also allows you to get something big to move. If something goes wrong .”

, you’d have enough time to send a replacement.

There are promising signs that humanity could mount a successful response if it was given enough notice. For example, the DART mission has already shown that a spacecraft can alter a space rock’s trajectory .. Multiple surveys of near-Earth objects, asteroids and comets are ongoing, and NASA received $55 million more for planetary defense from Congress than it asked for.

” It will take time and money in order to identify and characterize all the out there,” Rainey states. Rainey says that it is important to have the ability to quickly start missions that are effective against such things. But it’s still much more expensive than rebuilding a whole city.” Vernon adds, “At the very least, we have a plan.” Hopefully, it never has to be used.”


    Matt Brady is a high school science teacher and author of The Science

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