Credit: Andrzej Puchta/Alamy Stock Photo
Topics: Asteroids, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Civilization, Computer Modeling
The following article, since it simulated the destruction of my hometown, two days after my sixtieth birthday, is a little personal.
On August 16, 2022, an approximately 70-meter asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere. At 2:02:10 P.M. EDT, the space rock exploded eight miles over Winston-Salem, N.C., with the energy of 10 megatons of TNT. The airburst virtually leveled the city and surrounding area. Casualties were in the thousands.
Well, not really. The destruction of Winston-Salem was the storyline of the fourth Planetary Defense Tabletop Exercise, run by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The exercise was a simulation where academics, scientists, and government officials gathered to practice how the United States would respond to a real planet-threatening asteroid. Held February 23–24, participants were both virtual and in-person, hailing from Washington D.C., the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) campus in Laurel, Md., Raleigh, and Winston-Salem, N.C. The exercise included more than 200 participants from 16 different federal, state, and local organizations. On August 5, the final report came out, and the message was stark: humanity is not yet ready to meet this threat.
On the plus side, the exercise was meant to be hard—practically unwinnable. “We designed it to fall right into the gap in our capabilities,” says Emma Rainey, an APL senior scientist who helped to create the simulation. “The participants could do nothing to prevent the impact.” The main goal was to test the different government and scientific networks that should respond in a real-life planetary defense situation. “We want to see how effective operations and communications are between U.S. government agencies and the other organizations that would be involved, and then identify shortcomings,” says Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA headquarters.
NASA Asteroid Threat Practice Drill Shows We’re Not Ready, Matt Brady, Scientific American