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NASA to Roleplay an Asteroid Impacting Earth Scenario

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This image was captured by the International Space Station Expedition 59 crew as they orbited 400 kilometers above Quebec, Canada. Right of center, the ring-shaped lake is a modern reservoir within the eroded remnant of an ancient 100-kilometer diameter impact crater, which is over 200 million years old. NASA, International Space Station Expedition 59

This week, space agencies from around the world will drop everything to figure out an emergency response to our planet being struck by an enormous asteroid. But you needn’t start stocking up on canned goods or survival supplies, as the asteroid impact is only hypothetical, and the planning is part of a scenario played out at the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference.

Members of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) will join other space scientists in a simulation of how agencies, governments, and regular people might respond if our planet were threatened by an asteroid. Over five days, they will simulate a developing scenario of an impact and will have to tailor their responses to new incoming (albeit fictional) data.

“Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature, we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, in a statement. “These exercises ultimately help the planetary defense community communicate with each other and with our governments to ensure we are all coordinated should a potential impact threat be identified in the future.”

We now have an increasingly sophisticated system of telescopes in place which can spot asteroids or comets coming near to Earth, called potentially hazardous objects (PHO). But how should we respond if we do identify such an object on a collision course with the planet? That’s what the exercise aims to consider, as part of a strategy for planetary protection.

“Hypothetical asteroid impact exercises provide opportunities for us to think about how we would respond in the event that a sizeable asteroid is found to have a significant chance of impacting our planet,” said Dr. Paul Chodas, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). “Details of the scenario — such as the probability of the asteroid impact, where and when the impact might occur — are released to participants in a series of steps over the days of the conference to simulate how a real situation might evolve.”

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