It seems like every year experts dismiss doomsday predictions of asteroid strikes.
But astronomists and emergency responders are taking the possibility of an asteroid strike very seriously. NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a simulation on Oct. 25 that saw a 330-foot asteroid slamming near Los Angeles in 2020.
“It’s not a matter of if — but when — we will deal with such a situation,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
While scientists noted that an Earth-ending asteroid isn’t on the horizon, the asteroid in the demonstration could destroy buildings across 30 miles. It would also cause thousands of casualties and require a mass evacuation, according to the New York Times.
The meeting at El Segundo, Calif. involved a who’s who of planetary experts and first-responders: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, the Air Force and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Years of planning are necessary to respond to an incoming asteroid. Four years would probably not suffice to a fly a spacecraft to an asteroid and deflect it, said Paul Chodas, a manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Scientists were tasked with preparing for a mass evacuation on metro Los Angeles.
The largest known explosion in human history happened in 1908, when an asteroid destroyed 800 square miles after exploding above Tunguska, Siberia, according to The Times. The good news is that there were no human casualties. Astronomer Alan Harris calculated that the odds of dying from an asteroid impact is about 1 in 700,000. You’re more likely to die in a fireworks accident, reports Slate’s Phil Plait.
Still, scientists remain vigilant for dangerous asteroids. In 2013, NASA announced the Asteroid Grand Challenge program, which has seen partnerships with private companies to identify and prepare for dangerous asteroids. Talking about the agency in September, the White House’s top science advisor warned that an asteroid impact could be devastating.
“We are not fully prepared, but we are on a trajectory to get much more so,” John Holdren said.”This is a hazard that, 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs succumbed to. We have to be smarter than the dinosaurs.”
NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies also uses several telescopes to scan the skies for potential hazards. The area between Mars and Jupiter is best known as the source of asteroid threats, but researchers have added giant comets known as “centaurs” to the list of interplanetary hazards last year.
Several websites exist that allow you to run your own asteroid impact simulation.