Concern over an apocalyptic asteroid strike has risen all the way to the top: The White House released a document this week detailing a strategy for National Near Earth Object (NEO) preparedness. Morgan Freeman would no doubt be proud, although honestly, the nation might have more pressing apocalypse concerns closer to home.
Last year brought renewed interest in handling humanity-ending impact events. After a 2014 audit showed that NASA had a cruddy NEO preparedness system, the agency founded a new Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) last year to detect all of our potentially nasty NEO neighbors. The office quickly escalated talk to action, running preparedness drills with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), launching spacecraft to gather asteroid information, and even drawing up plans to nuke the bad boys out of the sky if things get dicey.
It isn’t surprising that the White House has gotten involved. The Interagency Working Group for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-bound Near-Earth Objects (DAMIEN) prepared the document on NEO preparedness with the goal of “enhancing the integration of existing national and international assets and adding important capabilities that are currently lacking.” DAMIEN also sounds like quite an appropriate acronym for the government apocalypse squad.
The action probably isn’t unwarranted—a 2013 fireball over Chelyabinsk, Russia “had an energy equivalent of almost 500 kilotons of trinitrotoluene (TNT), or roughly 20-30 times greater than the energy released from the first atomic bombs,” according to the report. Plus, NASA isn’t quite sure of everything that’s out there, waiting to do a little bit of killin’. The agency has only categorized “about 28% of the estimated population of asteroids 140 meters in size or larger,” though Congress requires that percentage jump up to 90. An NEO 140 meters or larger (around 460 feet) would hit our lovely little planet with an energy greater than the largest atomic bombs.
The strategy document lists seven goals:
- Improve the country’s NEO tracking and classifying abilities
- Figure out how to move or blow up threatening NEOs
- Make our models and predictions better
- Come up with emergency procedures in case an NEO can’t be deflected
- Create warning systems and recovery strategies
- Include other countries in our planning
- Put together protocols and thresholds to use for quick decision making
It’s unclear if anything in the White House document will translate into action, and the whole thing is loaded with detail-devoid “the United States should do X” statements. The PDCO already has a few trays in the oven anyway, and action will probably depend on funding from President Trump, though I feel like impact preparedness is something just crazy enough to pique his interest.
Honestly at this point, odds are if a giant asteroid was careening towards Earth, we’d all die while some old guys in suits bickered in a back room. But hey, that’s not a bad thing, because there wouldn’t be war or famine anymore. Anyway, I guess it’s nice that the President’s office is worried about us or something.