It’s a real possibility- an asteroid heading straight towards Earth. But could NASA stop an impeding asteroid? They set out to answer that question at a recent United Nations planetary defense conference.
What could happen?
According to The Independent NASA conducted a week-long simulation to find out. They focused on an asteroid heading towards Europe. The answer was not what you would expect. Even with six-month advance notice, NASA’s current capabilities could not prevent a catastrophe.
The asteroid they determined would catastrophically damage much of Europe and Northern Africa. Even with the hypothetical six-month lead time, the only course of action would be an evacuation of the area before an asteroid hit. Six months would not be enough time to launch a spacecraft with any hope of preventing impact. With an evacuation, lives would be saved but the area would still essentially be destroyed.
While the exercise showed we do not possess the technology to prevent impact it did give insight on how the world can better prepare for disasters. And currently governments are “dreadfully unprepared”. This kind of exercise is useful to identify communication issues, determine the key players in an event, and ensure a coordinated effort in case of a future threat.
Currently, NASA is working on asteroid deflection technology. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will begin a test mission this year. The test mission is scheduled to reach the asteroid Dimorphos in late 2022. This test will seek to change the orbit of the asteroid. It is hoped that this strategy would work on objects approaching Earth in the future.
Current SpaceX head Elon Musk sites the exercise as evidence that we need “larger and more advanced rockets”. A recent $2.89 billion contract between SpaceX and NASA will help develop a “next-generation Starship spacecraft”. Starship is said to be “the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed”. It is predicted that Starship could be used to assist in diverting the path of an asteroid.
Certainly, this technology is still a few years out. Hopefully, in the future, it will prove to be successful and serve as a solid defense should the need arise.