Every two years, the largest space agencies come together to run large simulations of an impending collision with an asteroid or other celestial object that is heading straight for us. After successfully saving Tokyo from the apocalypse for the first time, the researchers gathered for the biannual “Planetary Defense Conference”. In 2019, the latest NASA simulation prevailed against New York and astronomers were completely blown away by the events.
A new exercise of this kind therefore took place a few days ago, an opportunity for researchers around the world to revisit their protocol to avoid the end of the world. A great dress rehearsal that is taken very seriously by NASA and the ÉSA (the American and European space agencies) who fear the arrival of an asteroid in our orbit.
While the subject of an asteroid collision has often been the subject of plot points in science fiction films, reality could catch up with Hollywood in the next few years. Because if the topic has not been taken seriously by the scientific community for decades, the recent events in Russia in 2013 or last July have made the scientific community much more aware of the issue. If the risk of a frontal collision is minimal, it is not zero, and so astronomers are looking for a solution to counter the fate of the stars.
Asteroid surveillance at the center of the debate
This year the asteroid 2021 PDC was awarded in the simulation. With a diameter of 700 meters, the asteroid threatened no less than 6 million lives in its crazy race, which was to end on the border between the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria. Then if all logs are started to avoid the asteroid, nothing will be effective enough to avoid the catastrophic ending predicted by the simulation. The researchers’ efforts will be in vain and the asteroid will destroy part of Europe on October 20, 2021, just six months after “Day 1” of the simulation.
Beyond failure, this life-size exercise has shown that we cannot react in such situations. When the results seem bad to astronomers, they all point to the same responsible time.
According to the conclusions of the simulation, it is this variable that is the reason for the failure of the mission. Researchers from several space agencies have therefore realized that with “only” six months between the discovery of the object and contact with Earth, no protocol could be reactive enough to avoid the tragedy.
Observing and monitoring asteroids is therefore an essential requirement to protect us from a heavenly apocalypse. Several organizations are already working on a daily basis to monitor and calculate potential threats, be it for an asteroid towards Earth, but also for collisions with satellites that are in orbit around our planet. Nevertheless, some objects come closer to our planet than unknown. This was the case last July when an asteroid “grazed” us as we passed through our security systems.
Distract asteroids instead of destroying them?
If more and more asteroids are observed, there remains a second step to avoid the apocalypse: the asteroid can be deflected and / or destroyed. In this context, NASA has also planned to launch the spacecraft DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) to move the orbit of an asteroid (Dimorphos) in the coming months. This strategy of “deportation” or “deorbitation” is the solution preferred by scientists today to avoid collisions between meteors and our planet.
If in 2017, during the only success of the simulation, it was possible to save Tokyo’s 13 million inhabitants by a space nuclear strike, this strategy is being considered less and less today because it is politically very difficult to implement. In addition, the risks of “secondary impacts” make this option a last-ditch solution.
If the risk of contact with an asteroid is minimal, it is very real and the solutions to avoid the tragedy do not seem to be developed at the moment. Fortunately, NASA doesn’t see a major collision risk until the next century. Time for astronomers to revise their strategies for saving the world.
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