Talking to Lindley Johnson, the head of NASA’s newly minted Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), is not an uplifting experience.
“Even a small asteroid, say 100 meters in size, something the size of a football field, if it were to hit a population center on Earth it would pretty much wipe out the city,” he told me during a recent interview.
A deadly asteroid strike is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes—you have about a one in 700,000 chance of being killed by an asteroid. But it’s far from impossible. In fact, Johnson said, “it inevitably will happen. It’s happened on Earth many times.”
Preparing for an asteroid strike sounds like sci-fi paranoia. But it's a routine part of NASA's disaster planning. NASA has quietly spent the past several years teaming up with other government agencies, internationally and here at home, to try to spare us from an asteroid impact that could have enormous consequences for life on Earth. With this in mind, I set out to find out if the government's current plan is enough to save us from a fiery catastrophe. Here's what I learned.
NASA has been keeping tabs on Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), a category that includes asteroids and comets, since the late 1990s. Funding for identifying and tracking NEOs has spiked recently: NASA’s 2016 budget includes a hefty $50 million for NEO tracking and planetary defense, a 25% increase from its 2014 budget, and more than 10 times what it was about seven years ago.
Johnson attributes the budget increases to the government's rising awareness that asteroids pose a real threat to human life. He says increased fears over an asteroid strike could have to do with the meteorite that struck Russia's Chelyabinsk region in 2013:
In that instance, meteorites fell from a speeding NEO that exploded over Russia. Scientists' reports from after the crash were alarming. The Chelyabinsk meteorite was only 20 meters across, but it did tremendous damage—traveling at 12 miles per second, it gave off 30 times as much heat as the sun, caused shockwaves strong enough to knock people down, shattered thousands of windows, hurt more than 1,200 people, and caused at least $30 million in damage.
Close calls, in which a NEO passes our planet with a relatively small margin, are fairly common. In fact, NASA's anticipating one of these as soon as March:
A month after the Chelyabinsk meteorite crash, the House of Representative's Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held the first of a two-part session titled, “Threats From Space: A Review of U.S. Government efforts to track and mitigate asteroids and meteors." The committee hounded NASA with questions that hinted at real fear.
Congress wanted to know: Will this happen to us, and can we handle it if it does?
NASA offered Congress some good news, and some bad. The agency knows about over 90% of the large NEOs in existence, and keeps close tabs on the ones that seem threatening. That means that NASA will know if any of those pose a threat to Earth, and can plan accordingly.
The problem, however, is that NASA hasn’t done a very good job of keeping track of smaller asteroids—the kinds that might not change humanity as we know it, but could destroy something like the Capital Beltway with ease. In 2005, NASA set a goal for the NEO program: To track at least 90% of NEOs that scientists believe are out there and that measure at least 140 meters across (around 460 feet). In 2014, NASA’s inspector general published the results of an audit into the agency’s NEO program, which found that despite the generous increase to the NEO Program's budget, the agency has only identified 10% of those asteroids.
That’s troubling, especially because smaller asteroids are statistically more likely to impact our planet than larger ones.
So NASA formed the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, and gave it the mission of finding these smaller NEOs. If the office determines that none of these objects are Earth-bound, we’re in good shape. But if the PDCO does find an asteroid headed our way, things will get a little more complicated.
If NASA learns that a NEO is heading toward Earth, the best option, according to Johnson, would be to “take care of it out in space.”
There are really two options for preventing an Earth-bound asteroid from striking: you can either deflect it, or break it apart into pieces small enough to disintegrate in our atmosphere (something that happens naturally to small asteroids about every other week).
The challenge of figuring out how, specifically, to break up asteroids in space is being taken on internationally by, among others, the UN-mandated Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG). SMPAG's delightfully bureaucratic “Work Plan," published this past November, is a 30-page document that would be a snooze if its goals weren't so dramatic.
Most of the commission's tasks have been assigned to different agencies and have deadlines, but some major ones do not: "Consequences, including failure, of NEO mitigation space missions" has "To Be Determined" where a lead agency should be. Its schedule and output? Also TBD. Similarly, the task titled "A plan for SMPAG action in case of a credible threat" is also sprinkled with unknowns.
SMPAG's work plan claims that its ultimate goal is "the global protection of the ecosystem, of human beings and their properties on Earth, and of the civilisation of humankind.”
But reading the SMPAG document, you might wonder if leading scientists are actually figuring out how to save us from an asteroid disaster, or if they're throwing up their hands.
In our interview, PDCO's Johnson said that the agency's research had started to bear fruit. “Some of the technology [that would be used to prevent an asteroid impact] has already been demonstrated,” Johnson told me. “We can hit these small objects out in space.” Johnson is confident in this assessment thanks in large part to NASA’s successful Deep Impact mission, which landed a spacecraft on a comet.
Deep Impact, and other missions like the European Space Agency’s Rosetta, which also put a spacecraft on a comet, have demonstrated that it’s possible to hit a comet with enough force to deflect or destroy it. But no one has ever tried to knock a comet or asteroid out before. Plus, Johnson told me, “the most likely [impact] scenario is going to be an object that’s a lot smaller… that’s a lot more demanding of the technology.” And foreign governments are coming up with their own solutions—Russia, for instance, is considering just nuking the asteroids.
There is, however, a plan B for America: calling on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to break the news of an impending asteroid strike to the public and guide them to safety.
“We’ve had two tabletop exercises here at FEMA HQ,” Leviticus Lewis, who heads up the Field Operations Branch at FEMA, tells me over the phone.
A tabletop exercise is FEMA jargon for a simulation that happens in a room—rather than out in the field—and they're what FEMA does to walk through a plan for any natural disaster. FEMA has held two of these, in 2013 and 2014, to figure out how they would respond to an asteroid strike in America—inputting variables like the size of the object, and whether it's made of ice, rock, or metal.
To plan for an asteroid impact, FEMA would need a lot of information from NASA, possibly in very short order. First, they would have to know that the asteroid is coming (which is why it's so important that NASA tracks all of the 140-meter-plus asteroids). Then the agency would need to know what that object is made up of. The best way to gather that data would be to use a spacecraft to bring back a sample of the asteroid, and let NASA scientists examine it here on Earth. Alternatively, scientists could try to figure out the makeup of the asteroid using telescopes or radar.
If NASA can pull all of that off, it would be able to help FEMA determine the scope of the expected damage. And then FEMA could tell the public which areas were likely to be hit, what critical infrastructure might be destroyed or damaged, and who exactly should evacuate their homes.
But apart from that, FEMA’s response to an asteroid impact would look pretty similar to its response to any natural disaster—gather information, assess risks, and inform the public.
According to Lewis, FEMA is considering holding a more elaborate simulation of an asteroid impact. This one would still just be a tabletop mission, but it would bring in government leaders to learn how to deal with a hypothetical disaster, so they'd be better equipped in the event that an asteroid did hit their cities.
For its part, NASA is set to launch its OSIRIS REx mission to the asteroid Bennu in September of this year, and reach the asteroid in 2018. In 2023, the spacecraft will return to Earth with samples from the asteroid, which should help us learn more about the rocky objects and how to prevent them from wreaking havoc on Earth.
In short, America is making strides toward protection against an asteroid disaster, but they’re a bit haphazard, and they may be too slow to be effective.
Johnson of NASA's PDCO told me that he doesn't "really have the capabilities in hand” to find 90% of the 140-meter plus NEOs. If we don’t know an asteroid is coming, even the most accurate deflection technology won’t help. And putting our trust in FEMA is similarly alarming, considering the way it has handled other Earthly disasters.
So for now, the anti-asteroid plan concocted by America's leading scientists is largely, well, to work on a plan. In the meantime, the best the average American can do is probably to cross her fingers, and pray for clear skies.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.