The federal government wants to be better prepared for a possible asteroid impact.
A new interagency report offers plans for improving the government’s ability to detect, predict, plan for and respond to a near-Earth object impact.
“The National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan” outlines opportunities for improvements to NASA’s NEO detection, tracking, and characterization capabilities, as well as the agency’s NEO modeling prediction abilities.
The paper, produced by NASA, FEMA, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and other agencies, also encourages increased coordination and collaboration among asteroid detection programs and emergency planning and response, as well as greater international cooperation.
“The nation already has significant scientific, technical and operation capabilities that are relevant to asteroid impact prevention,” Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release. “Implementing the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan will greatly increase our nation’s readiness and work with international partners to effectively respond should a new potential asteroid impact be detected.”
One of the paper’s five main goals calls for NASA to develop NEO deflection and disruption programming.
“NASA will lead development of technologies for fast-response NEO reconnaissance missions and timely missions to deflect or disrupt hazardous NEOs,” the paper reads. “Developing these technologies before an imminent threat arises will strengthen our ability to prevent NEO impact disasters.”
NASA has been studying near Earth objects — asteroids and comets with orbits within 30 million miles of Earth — for nearly five decades. During that time, hundreds of asteroids have passed close by, many dozen between Earth and the moon.
No known large near Earth objects are projected to intersect with Earth’s orbit any time soon, and the chance of an NEO impact remains extremely low.
However, asteroids occasionally arrive unexpectedly. In 2013, the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded in the atmosphere above Russia, releasing an explosive force the equivalent of 500,000 tons of TNT. The shockwave broke thousands of windows and sent hundreds of people to the hospital. Until the fireball appeared in the sky, scientists had no knowledge of the small asteroid, which measured just 65 feet wide.
While a combination of NEO-tracking surveys have discovered the majority of large NEOs, astronomers are less able to locate all of the smaller, but still dangerous, asteroids.
“Planetary scientists stress that new telescopes with larger apertures and greater sensitivities, both on the ground and in space, will be needed to find the majority of the smaller asteroids, objects between 100 and 300 meters across,” according to David J. Eicher, editor of Astronomy Magazine.