May 16, 2021

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NASA warns that a giant asteroid heading to Earth cannot be stopped – even with six months’ notice


An asteroid with a massive nuclear bomb would destroy a large part of Europe, and a new simulation shows that we can do nothing to stop it.

NASA conducted a table exercise last week to better understand prevention in space using a simulated scenario of an asteroid 35 million miles from Earth that would strike in six months.

The hypothetical asteroid, called 2021PDC, was first “spotted” on April 19 and throughout the exercise, scientists planned how to prevent it from colliding with our planet on October 20.

After days of studying the size, trajectory, and chance of impact space rocks, American and European scientists decided that none of our current technology could prevent the asteroid from colliding with Earth – this includes a spacecraft hitting the space rock or detonating it with a bomb.

It also took the team of scientists about 184 days to determine the area of ​​impact and the likelihood of an asteroid impact on our planet.

“If we encounter the 2021PDC hypothetical scenario in real life, we will not be able to launch any spacecraft at such a short notice of current capabilities,” said exercise participants.

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NASA conducted a table exercise last week to better understand the prevention of our planet in space and used a simulated scenario of an asteroid 35 million miles from Earth that would strike in six months.

The exercise lasted approximately four days, with each day looking at how the event evolved over the course of six months as if it were a real world emergency.

April 26, or day one, kicked off a five percent probability of its impact on Earth, paving the way for strategic planning to either destroy space rocks or take them off the path toward Earth.

The second day of exercise rapidly progresses until May 2, 2021, as astronomers spent the previous week working on improving the 2021PDC’s orbit and collision probability.

The team used image data collected by the Pan-STARRS asteroid survey in 2014, which showed 2021PDC seven years before its discovery, during its previous approach to Earth.

Using the largest telescopes in the world, astronomers around the world have continued to track 2021PDC every night to continuously improve the asteroid's orbit and narrow its projected area of ​​influence dramatically to fall within Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia.

Using the largest telescopes in the world, astronomers around the world have continued to track 2021PDC every night to continuously improve the asteroid’s orbit and narrow its projected area of ​​influence dramatically to fall within Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia.

Pictured is a map showing potential impact locations for the 2021 PDC, which scientists have created to stimulate interdisciplinary conversations about planetary defense.  It took 184 days to determine the area of ​​impact and the probability of asteroid impact on our planet

Pictured is a map showing potential impact locations for the 2021 PDC, which scientists have created to stimulate interdisciplinary conversations about planetary defense. It took 184 days to determine the area of ​​impact and the probability of asteroid impact on our planet

This data allowed astronomers to reduce the uncertainty in orbit and conclude that the simulated asteroid has a 100 percent probability of hitting Earth in Europe or North Africa.

Scientists suggested shooting the asteroid with nuclear weapons, which might be considered an obvious attack to many, but the team found hidden obstacles.

The simulations showed that if a nuclear device was connected, space rocks could be reduced to a size that was less destructive.

The simulations suggested the size of the 2021PDC would be anywhere from 114 feet to a half mile and it is not clear if a giant bomb could drop the asteroid.

On the third day, the trainings took the researchers to June 30th when the world was preparing to make an impact.

The last day of the hypothetical asteroid collision exercise, Day 4, fast-advances until October 14 - just six days before collision.  The 2021PDC is now approximately 3.9 million miles from Earth, and is close enough to the Goldstone Solar System's radar to detect and analyze the 2021PDC and significantly improve the asteroid's size and physical properties.

The last day of the hypothetical asteroid collision exercise, Day 4, fast-advances until October 14 – just six days before collision. The 2021PDC is now approximately 3.9 million miles from Earth, and is close enough to the Goldstone Solar System’s radar to detect and analyze the 2021PDC and dramatically improve the asteroid’s size and physical properties.

Using the world’s largest telescopes, astronomers around the world continue to track 2021PDC every night.

Through this, they improved the asteroid’s orbit and drastically reduced its projected area of ​​influence to fall within Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia.

The last day of the hypothetical asteroid collision exercise, Day 4, was quickly dispatched to October 14 – just six days before collision.

2021PDC was now roughly 3.9 million miles from Earth, close enough to the Goldstone Solar System’s radar to detect and analyze 2021PDC and significantly improve the asteroid’s size and physical properties.

This showed that the asteroid was much smaller than previously thought, reducing the area expected for damage from the collision.

At this point, astronomers were able to narrow the region of impact to be centered near the borders of Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria, and they determined that the asteroid had a 99 percent probability of impacting within this region.

“Every time we participate in an exercise of this kind, we learn more about who the main players in a catastrophic event are, and who needs to know the information,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer.

The joint NASA-FEMA exercise involved representatives from several other federal agencies, including the departments of defense and state.  In the photo, the scientists run simulations as if it were a real emergency

The joint NASA-FEMA exercise involved representatives from several other federal agencies, including the departments of defense and state. In the photo, the scientists run simulations as if it were a real emergency

Ultimately, these exercises help the global defense community connect with each other and with our governments to ensure we all coordinate should a potential future impact threat is identified.

To date, NASA has participated in seven impact scenarios – four at previous Planetary Defense conferences (2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019) and three in collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The joint NASA-FEMA exercise involved representatives from several other federal agencies, including the departments of defense and state.

“Hypothetical asteroid collision exercises provide opportunities for us to think about how we would respond in the event there is a high chance of a large asteroid impacting our planet,” said Dr. Paul Chodas, Director of CNEOS.

Scenario details – such as the likelihood of an asteroid collision, and where and when the impact might occur – are shared with participants in a series of steps over the course of the conference days to simulate how the real situation will develop.