asteroid, meteor warning, space
Photo by Bryan Goff

As part of the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference, NASA and FEMA will conduct a series of exercises designed to show how they would react to the discovery of a fictional asteroid heading our way. The exercise is being conducted as part of a federal “action plan” for defending Earth against asteroids that was announced last June. It will play out over the five days of the conference, which began in College Park, Maryland, on Monday and runs through May 3.

Meteor Fire Drill

According to the scenario, astronomers discover that a make-believe space rock dubbed 2019 PDC has a one-in-100 chance of smashing into Earth in 2027. Participants in the exercise, including the European Space Agency and the International Asteroid Warning Network, will consider how they might mount space missions to investigate and possibly deflect the asteroid. As well, they will discuss how the effects of an impact might be mitigated.

Meteor Warning is Real

Even though the asteroid is fictitious, the threat posed by strikes is all too real. As of the start of 2019, more than 19,000 near-Earth objects (NEOs) had been discovered.  Around 30 more are discovered each week as astronomers continue to search for them.

“We’ve only found about one-third of NEOs large enough to cause severe regional damage, so we have a lot of work left to do,” Amy Mainzer, an astronomer and asteroid expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said. “We need to build and operate more capable space- and ground-based telescopes.”

Meteors that could destroy an entire U.S. state are a real threat to Earth. Speaking at the conference, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the meteor warning is real.  “This is not about Hollywood; it is not about movies. This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life,” he said.

The meteorite that exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013 had “30 times the energy of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima” said Bridenstine. It injured around 1,500 people. Just 16 hours after the crash, NASA detected an even larger object that approached Earth.

Meteors Will Happen

“I wish I could tell you that these events are exceptionally unique, but they are not,” Bridenstine added. “These events are not rare. They happen. It’s up to us to make sure that we are characterizing, detecting, tracking all of the near-Earth objects that could be a threat to the world.”

According to scientific modeling systems, such events are expected to happen once every 60 years. However, Bridenstine pointed out that destructive meteorites had crashed on Earth only three times in the last 100 years.

So far, scientist and those that watch the skies haven’t identified any large objects on a collision course with Earth. Yet.

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