El Segundo, California — It’s a scenario straight out of a Hollywood science fiction movie.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are engaging in exercises about how best to protect the earth in general and Los Angeles in particular in the event of an asteroid collision.
The most recent emergency planetary protection exercise took place on October 25, 2016, at a meeting of officials from NASA, FEMA, and other agencies in El Segundo, California.
In addition to officials from NASA and FEMA, attendees included representatives from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, the U.S. Air Force, and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
The purpose of what is being called a “tabletop exercise” was to consider and begin to prepare for what might happen if a 330-foot asteroid were to collide with the earth.
The worst-case scenario involved the possibility of an asteroid strike on September 20, 2020 in Southern California. The simulation estimated that such a collision would destroy buildings within a radius of at least 30 miles, would involve tens of thousands of deaths, and would require a mass evacuation of Los Angeles and surrounding areas.
This was the third in a series of simulations jointly sponsored by NASA and FEMA. The meetings are intended to strengthen collaboration between the two agencies, which would be charged to lead the American response in such a crisis.
According to Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington,
“It’s not a matter of if — but when — we will deal with such a situation.”
“Unlike any other time in our history, we now have the ability to respond to an impact threat through continued observations, predictions, response planning, and mitigation.”
The meeting also provided a way for scientists and others to explain how they would collect, analyze, and share data in the event of an asteroid strike against the earth. The exercise helps crisis managers consider and plan for the unique challenges of an asteroid strike, such as emergency preparedness, government agency response, and public warning.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate explained,
“It is critical to exercise these kinds of low-probability but high-consequence disaster scenarios.”
He went on to say,
“By working through our emergency response plans now, we will be better prepared if and when we need to respond to such an event.”
For the present, however, an asteroid-earth collision remains a purely hypothetical scenario.
Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, insists there is no significant possibility that an asteroid collision of the kind simulated in the exercise could occur in the next one hundred years.
Chodas admits there are 659 asteroids with a remote chance of colliding with the earth.
“But none pose a significant threat over the next century, either because the probabilities are extraordinarily small, or the asteroids themselves are extremely small.”
However, he admits,
“Nevertheless, we must continue searching for asteroids in case there is one that is heading our way.”