Much more long-term planning is needed given the risk of devastating asteroid impacts. Always thinking in terms of annual or biennial planning periods is not enough, even if the budget of many publicly funded institutions is set in this way. This is the conclusion drawn by the European Space Agency ESA after an exercise in which space agencies and disaster relief workers ran through the hypothetical scenario of an asteroid impact last week.
The fictitious impact could not be prevented, also because the hypothetical asteroid could not be discovered early enough. More sensitive detectors such as the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission (NEOSM) or the Rubin Observatory (LSST) could do this, but are not active.
No defense possible in the simulation game
The “Planetary Defense Conference Exercise 2021” was the fifth to be held as part of the biennial conference of the same name. Due to the corona pandemic, it only took place virtually this year. At the beginning of the exercise, the participants only knew that this year’s fictional asteroid had only just been discovered and could hit Earth as early as October. In the course of the four-day exercise, the probability increased and an impact in the Czech-German-Austrian border area emerged. It had been discovered too late for a possible countermeasure. If a space probe was ready for defense, it would have to be equipped with a nuclear warhead in order to be able to blow it open despite such a short warning time – it was too late to distract. Ultimately, the region could only be evacuated in time in the simulation game.
The good news is that we probably all know the really big asteroids like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, the ESA now assures. Detectors such as the NEOSM space telescope planned for 2025 or the Vera C. Rubin Observatory should detect smaller ones like the fictional one from the simulation game – which was around 100 meters in diameter. These instruments would have discovered the hypothetical asteroids of the exercise as early as 2014 and given those responsible on Earth more than seven years of warning. During this time one could not only have prepared a destruction, but also a diversion, with which such a catastrophic impact could have been prevented. You can still read the course of this year’s simulation game.