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Asteroid impact exercise offers practice for NASA, ESA scientists, engineers

"The exercise highlights the need to have as much of the response infrastructure ready to go as possible, because we won't have that much time to work with," said Brent William Barbee, aerospace engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

By Brooks Hays
Asteroid impact exercise offers practice for NASA, ESA scientists, engineers
In the asteroid impact scenario being played out this week in College Park, Md., PDC 2019 is predicted to hit Earth in eight years. Photo by Center for Near Earth Object Studies/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA

May 2 (UPI) -- Scientists and engineers from NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as other federal officials and policy makers, are participating in a hypothetical asteroid impact scenario this week.

The week-long exercise started on Monday, and while many of the hard decisions have already been made, the scenario will continue to play out on Thursday and Friday.

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"Every day you'll learn how the hypothetical scenario is playing out," JoAnna Wendel, a science writer with NASA's Planetary Science Division, told UPI. "We're jumping forward into the future to see how the decisions affect the outcome."

The exercise is part of the 2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference, held this week in College Park, Md.

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"The way that these work is we have a team that creates a fictitious scenario," said Brent William Barbee, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We come up with a fake asteroid with a fake orbit around the sun, and the simulation is set up so that the asteroid will collide with the Earth in the future."

The designers of the "tabletop exercise" created an asteroid impact scenario that would present participants with a unique set of challenges.

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"The asteroid had a high inclination orbit, with an orbital plane highly tilted compared to Earth's," Barbee said. "The orbit was also very big and egg-shaped. Those features made it very difficult to get spacecraft out to it during the time frame that we would need to."

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As in a real asteroid impact scenario, agency leaders had to decide when and how to deploy resources for response missions.

"In this exercise, it was about eight years from when the object was discovered to when it was scheduled to hit the Earth," Barbee said. "So we calculated the timing of when we could launch missions to do reconnaissance work, and when we could launch a mission to deflect or destroy it."

Tracking the trajectory of potentially hazardous near Earth objects is difficult, imprecise work. At the outset of this week's asteroid impact scenario, the fictitious space rock had a 10 percent chance of hitting Earth. But planning space missions and building spacecraft take time. As a result, participants had to decide when and how to commit resources to response missions.

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"There are also choices about how to deflect the asteroid," Barbee said. "Whether you deploy nuclear weapons, or ram a fleet of spacecraft into it. As it is an international effort, there are also political choices about who will contribute what to the different missions."

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All of the high-pressure decisions have to be made in a short amount of time. By practicing, participants can identify the most difficult parts of response planning and take steps to improve communications and streamline the decision-making process, which NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said Monday in a speech at the opening of the conference needs to happen.

Bridenstine noted that asteroid redirection is "not about movies" and not about Hollywood -- it's about "protecting the only planet we know."

"One of the reasons we have to take this seriously is the giggle factor," he said.

In addition to making decisions about how to deflect the asteroid, participants also considered a variety of impact scenarios and the kinds of on-the-ground emergency response efforts they might require.

"The exercise highlights the need to have as much of the response infrastructure ready to go as possible, because we won't have that much time to work with," Barbee said.

Barbee said the exercise has been well received by participants, so far.

"As intended, it's raising interesting and challenging questions, the consideration of which are extremely helpful in refining our thoughts and plans for carrying out planetary defense activities in actuality," Barbee said.

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Participants energetically debated the key issues -- whether and how quickly to respond to an uncertain threat, what kinds of technologies to deploy -- that international partners may face during a real asteroid impact scenario in the future.

"These debates and discussions improve our preparedness to defend ourselves against any actual future near-Earth object threats," Barbee said.

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