map, meteor strike, New York
NASA
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As part of the Planetary Defense Conference, NASA sent a fictitious 200-foot-wide asteroid pummeling into New York City. The meteor strike simulation was part of an exercise to see what would happen if a meteor struck Earth in a densely populated area.

Fake Asteroid

The scientist found out, if real, the asteroid would have hit with a force 1,000 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  It would have leveled downtown Manhattan, from Central Park to Battery Park. And it would have caused an estimated 1.3 million deaths.

The conference attracted scores of astronomers, professors, and disaster experts. They were eager to learn how the U.S. government might react to a killer asteroid headed toward Earth. They also learned what space missions and evacuation plans are in place to mitigate the disaster.

“I think the exercise illustrated how time is the most valuable asset when it comes to asteroid hazards,” said Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a participant in the simulation. “In reality, having many decades of warning gives us multiple options and multiple tries to prevent catastrophe.”

The Meteor Strike Scenario

The asteroid simulation started with the fictitious discovery of an asteroid the size of a city block. They purported it had a 1-in-10 chance of striking Earth in 2027. Each day of the conference, NASA advanced the clock by months or years. The scenario was updated as decisions were made by smaller groups of scientists and other experts.

The Plan

NASA launched a make-believe reconnaissance spacecraft in 2021 to determine that the asteroid was on a direct course for Denver. After that, scientists at the conferenced settled on the “kinetic impactor technique.” This called for the building and launching of six spacecraft to ram into the asteroid by 2024 and knock it off course.

The fictional fleet of spacecraft hit their mark and pushed the asteroid off course. (Yay!) However, a 200-foot-wide fragment broke off and continued toward Earth. NASA’s calculations showed that the object would hit somewhere from Nebraska to the Atlantic Ocean. (Dang!) Ten days before impact — and on the last day of the conference — astronomers announced that the asteroid fragment would make a direct hit on Central Park.

Meteor Strike Results

The conference published a map that shows the projected damage zones from the meteor strike in Manhattan. The red zone marks complete destruction. In the orange zone, most residential structures collapse and people’s clothing would ignite. Second-degree burns would be expected in the outer zone.

How Likely is This?

Scientists say the Earth can expect one meteor strike about every 60 years. Asteroid hunters are confident they’ve found nearly all the asteroids as big as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. However, there are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth asteroids as big as the asteroid used in the simulation. The trouble is that they don’t know where roughly two-thirds of those are.

The odds that a killer asteroid will smash into one of the world’s biggest metropolises, rather than the ocean or a less-populated region is small. “We could have made it land in Youngstown, Ohio, or Lincoln, Nebraska, or Fairfield, Iowa,” said Mark Boslough, a University of New Mexico physics professor who helped organize the simulation. “But that’s not as interesting as New York.”

NASA plans to test the “kinetic impactor technique” method for real in 2022 with a mission called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). It is one potential methods of deflecting a dangerous asteroid. Other possibilities include tugging on an asteroid using the gravity of a nearby spacecraft, blasting it with nuclear weapons or sending a spacecraft to paint it white to change the amount of solar radiation it absorbs and thereby cause a shift in its trajectory.

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