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Huge region of Europe destroyed by asteroid impact in planetary defense exercises

Fictional asteroid impact zone

The shaded areas of this image indicate where the (imaginary) impact is most likely to occur. There is a 99% chance that the impact will be localized in the outer contour, 87% inside the middle contour and 40% inside the central dark red area. For educational purposes only. It’s not real. Credit: ESA

In an alternate reality set at this year’s International Planetary Defense Conference, a fictional asteroid crashes over Europe, “destroying” a region about 100 km wide near the Czech Republic and the German border. The scenario was presented, but the people who took part are very real and the lessons learned will shape our ability to react to dangerous asteroids for years to come.

Asteroid impact: the only natural disaster we can prevent

Natural hazards come in different forms and occur with varying frequency. Some are relatively common local events such as floods and forest fires. Others appear only once in a blue moon, but can affect the entire planet, such as global pandemics and asteroid impacts.

However, the threat from asteroids is unique: the impact of an asteroid is the most predictable natural disaster we face, and with enough warning, we have the technology, in principle, to prevent it completely.

Hera network with CubeSats

ESA Hera’s mission to the Didymos binary asteroid system will carry two CubeSat Opportunity (COPINS) payloads – named Juventas and Milani – to support the scientific goals of the main spacecraft, as well as demonstrate deep space connection techniques. Credit: ESA – ScienceOffice.org

In the last few decades, the field of planetary defense has made remarkable progress – humanity already has telescopes scattered around the planet, looking for dangerous space rocks, the largest of which have been discovered, and this year we launch a mission to try for the first time the deviation of the asteroid.

The good news is that when it comes to giant dinosaur-sized asteroids with extinction, we’re pretty sure we’ve found each one. Due to their huge size, they are easy to detect. But the smaller they get, the more we have to discover, which is why the impact of this year’s asteroid, 2021 PDC, has taught such an important lesson: we can only prevent what we can predict.

This year’s scenario: the mission is impossible

Although this scenario is realistic in many ways, it is completely fictional
DOES NOT describe the actual impact of an asteroid.

It all started on April 19, 2021, when a new asteroid was discovered by the Pan-STARRS near-Earth exploration project. It soon became clear that this asteroid was alarmingly likely to hit Earth in just six months.

Additional observations confirmed what the international community feared, and the impact was certain. However, the size of the site remains unclear and varies from 35 to 700 meters in diameter.

As would be the case if a true asteroid was in collision, the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) – a network of organizations that detect, track and characterize potentially dangerous asteroids – disseminates publicly weekly updates on the likelihood of impact as it progresses. the situation.

At the same time, the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) has begun to consider our options for preventing the impact. However, the time is short and we are still not sure about the size of the object. Most asteroid deflection options – such as high energy deflection, a “gravity tractor” or an “ion beam shepherd” – work by only slightly pushing the target space scale. However, if done far enough in advance, the small initial thrust accumulates to become a major change in position by the time the asteroid approaches Earth.

On the third day of the conference, the scenario jumps forward two months to June 30, less than four months until the imaginary asteroid hits. At this stage, SMPAG concludes that space missions cannot be launched in time to divert or disrupt the 2021 PDC from the course of the collision.

Lessons learned: we cannot prevent what we cannot predict

A scenario like this, in which the impact of an asteroid is predicted with a short warning of only a few months, creates challenges for prevention in space.

Asteroids in our solar system do not appear out of nowhere, they travel in orbits around the Sun for thousands, millions of years. Like annual meteor showers, we can calculate with great certainty when an asteroid will return.

If a more sensitive study of asteroids such as NEOSM or the Rubin Observatory (LSST) had been conducted in 2014, they would almost certainly have detected 2,021 PDCs on a previous trip around the Sun, and this seven-year warning would have hosted various possible results. In particular, space missions would be feasible for a reconnaissance mission to find out more about the size and composition of the asteroid, or a simple “kinetic impact element” diversion mission could push it out.

Investing in the eyes of heaven

Telescopes and studies of the sky such as PanSTARRS or the study of Catalina and many others discover new near-Earth objects (NEO) every day. ESA adds to this global network with its upcoming network of high-tech Flyeyes.

The ESA Telescope, the second of which was recently installed in La Sila, South America, is a joint project with THAT which will effectively carry out follow-up observations of NEO, and the first Flyeye telescope is currently under construction to be installed on a mountain peak in Sicily, Italy, with an insect-inspired design that will allow it to cover many regions of the sky much faster than traditional design.

Investments like these, as well as those around the world, are essential to our protection from dangerous asteroids. We need to find them before we can do anything about them.

Lessons from COVID-19

“Simply thinking in annual or biennial planning cycles, which is how many budgets are set in public institutions, is not good enough to respond to a risk that has been going on for hundreds of millions of years.”

This year the conference, like most events in recent months, was held entirely online. As many participants noted, preparing for one disaster while in the middle of another had a unique touch, not so subtle a reminder that unlikely but catastrophic events are very real and must be prepared for.

Disaster management experts, local governments, mission planners and policy experts regularly review past events to see what worked and what went wrong. On the fourth day of the conference, lessons from past disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes were discussed, along with lessons from COVID-19 pandemic.

The need to invest in research and technology, to prepare governments and local authorities, including with realistic exercise scenarios, to understand how to protect different populations with different needs, including the most vulnerable in society, is vital, and to provide clear and transparent information and advice to the public.

“The big lesson was that we needed longer-term planning on how we could detect, track and ultimately mitigate potentially dangerous asteroids,” said Detlef Koshni, head of ESA’s Planetary Defense Service.

“Simply thinking in annual or biennial planning cycles, which is how many budgets are set in public institutions, is not good enough to respond to a risk that has been going on for hundreds of millions of years.”

Finally, one thing is clear: the impact of an asteroid, although unlikely, is likely to happen sooner or later – so it’s best to be prepared.

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