NASA simulated an incoming asteroid impact, and the biggest roadblock to action was penny pinchers in Congress

    A nearby asteroid called Bennu, which poses no threat to Earth.

    NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/CSA/York/MDA via AP

    NASA conducted a new tabletop simulation of discovering a large asteroid headed for Earth.Experts feared Congress wouldn’t fund a mission to an asteroid with a 72% chance of impacting Earth.This hypothetical scenario highlights a challenge in addressing any future impact threat: politics.

    NASA recently brought together about 100 experts to pretend that an asteroid was heading for Earth.

    The tabletop simulation presented a hypothetical scenario in which cities like Dallas, Washington, DC, and Madrid were at risk of a large asteroid impact.

    “A large asteroid impact is potentially the only natural disaster humanity has the technology to predict years in advance and take action to prevent,” Lindley Johnson, a NASA planetary defense officer emeritus, said in a press release.

    But it wasn’t clear that they could prevent such a catastrophe — even with 14 years to figure it out.

    The simulation revealed that technology wasn’t the problem that could ultimately doom a city, region, or entire country. It was politics.

    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer at the Capitol on December 12, 2023.

    Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

    “I know what I would prefer [to do], but Congress will tell us to wait,” one participant said of their asteroid-response plan, in a selection of anonymized comments in NASA’s summary of the exercise, published on June 20.

    “The most important item of the morning was the discussion involving the political nature of the decision-making,” another participant said.

    Congress may not move fast enough

    NASA has conducted nearly a dozen tabletop simulations since 2013. This one happened in May and included participants from the US State Department, FEMA, and the space agencies of Europe, the UK, Japan, and Canada.

    Representatives from NASA, FEMA, and the planetary defense community participate in the 2024 Planetary Defense Interagency Tabletop Exercise.

    NASA/JHU-APL/Ed Whitman

    Past exercises showed that, in order to save the world, NASA would need at least five years’ notice that an asteroid was headed toward us, maybe even 10 years.

    This time the simulators learned that, even when they had plenty of time, they might not be able to launch their preferred anti-asteroid offensive.

    That’s because they didn’t think Congress would approve funding for a critical space mission to study the asteroid “unless impact became certain,” NASA’s summary said.

    A major part of the simulation was figuring out how to impress the “seriousness” of the situation upon Congress and other leadership, Johnson said.

    What’s more, the 14-year timeline spanned multiple budget cycles and presidential elections. At any of those junctures, the president, Congress, or NASA’s own leadership could change priorities and disrupt the asteroid plan.

    The most likely incoming asteroid scenario

    Here are the hypothetical conditions the participants were given in this year’s exercise: Scientists have determined a 72% chance of this asteroid impacting Earth in 14 years. It could strike anywhere across a swath of North America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

    The asteroid’s size was unclear. It could be anywhere from 60 to 800 meters (half a mile) wide — possibly big enough to devastate an entire country.

    All that uncertainty made this “a very realistic scenario,” Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at MIT who specializes in potentially hazardous asteroids, but did not participate in the simulation, told Business Insider.

    “In fact, it’s the most likely type of scenario we will face, where an asteroid is discovered and we have limited information,” Binzel said.

    Options for preventing an asteroid impact include shooting the asteroid with lasers, launching a nuclear bomb at it, or simply smacking a space probe into it to nudge it away from Earth.

    NASA has tested one of those options in a mission that punched an asteroid and dramatically changed its path in 2022, just to prove the technique could work.

    Footage from the NASA DART spacecraft’s camera shows the mission’s views as it approached, then smashed into, an asteroid.

    NASA Live

    In the simulation, experts wanted more information to understand their anti-asteroid options.

    Unfortunately, the fictional space rock was about to pass behind the sun and disappear from view for seven months. To avoid wasting precious time, scientists would have to send a spacecraft to the asteroid to learn more about it.

    That’s where they feared politics would get in the way. Participants weren’t sure Congress would fund the mission unless the asteroid was a certain threat — not a 72% chance of threat.

    So far, NASA has not discovered any large asteroids on track to impact Earth.

    But scientists have identified fewer than 11,000 near-Earth asteroids that are at least 140 meters (460 feet) wide — big enough to crush a city. They believe there are 15,000 of them in our vicinity, meaning more than a quarter of city killers remain undiscovered.

    NASA could plan a mission just in case

    Binzel says NASA could get political and bureaucratic barriers out of the way now, before any asteroid threats are identified, by developing a reconnaissance mission to have on standby.

    “It’s an adult thing to do that can protect us from becoming surprised,” he said.

    The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine made a similar recommendation in its last decadal survey of planetary science priorities.

    In that 2022 report, the Academies said that NASA should “develop an approach for a rapid-response, flyby” spacecraft to closely study newly-discovered threats. That way, it could launch a reconnaissance mission in less than three years if it became necessary. The Academies also recommended a demonstration to practice reconnaissance on a real asteroid.

    So why isn’t NASA working on that right now?

    “It’s not in the budget,” Binzel said.

    First NASA has to make a proposal for such a mission, with a thumbs up from the White House, and then Congress would have to authorize and fund it.

    “If there’s an asteroid out there with our name on it, it’s already there,” Binzel said. “Fortunately, the chance in the next century or so is incredibly small. But it’s not zero.”

    Read the original article on Business Insider


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