NASA and FEMA scientists tracking asteroid using ground and space-based telescopes to refine estimates
Space news Sept. 20, 2020 ( NASA Planetary Defense Office: joint NASA and FEMA operation; emergency response to future asteroid impact) – Jet Propulsion Laboratory in El Segundo, California; conducting emergency response exercise for possible future asteroid impact –
NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson spoke today at a simulated emergency response exercise to a possible future asteroid impact estimated for some time around Sept. 20, 2020. The exercise provided a forum for the planetary science community to prepare emergency managers by collecting, analyzing, and sharing data about such an event should it occur. It also provided the chance for emergency response personnel, the asteroid science community, and emergency managers across the country and the world to begin forming the strong working relationships required to protect humanity from an asteroid strike.
This particular exercise was the third in a series hosted jointly by NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was conducted to prepare emergency services in the event of an asteroid impact becomes more likely during the years ahead and strengthen bonds between their partnership. At this point, NASA and FEMA officials say an asteroid impact is very unlikely, but we need to be ready in case of an emergency.
“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. “But 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.”
During the emergency response exercise, planetary science community representatives showed how data concerning a possible future asteroid impact would be collected, analyzed, and shared. Emergency response managers talked about the way the information would be used to consider the challenges and options during an asteroid impact. They also talked about the way to prepare, respond, and tell the public about the crisis.
“It is critical to exercise these kinds of low-probability but high-consequence disaster scenarios,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said. “By working through our emergency response plans now, we will be better prepared if and when we need to respond to such an event.”
This possible asteroid impact in four years time was first discovered in the fall and was at that time estimated at 2 percent. NASA assets will continue to track the asteroid for the next three months, before updating the chances of a possible impact. But at this point, NASA and its partners are preparing to launch a possible mission to deflect or otherwise intercept the asteroid. Exercise attendees were left with the challenge of preparing for a mass evacuation of a major US metropolitan city and region in the worst case scenario. They went over possible impact scenarios, looked at possible population displacement estimates, discussed infrastructure that would be affected, and all data that could realistically be known concerning a possible asteroid impact in four years time.
“The high degree of initial uncertainty coupled with the relatively long impact warning time made this scenario unique and especially challenging for emergency managers,” said FEMA National Response Coordination Branch Chief Leviticus A. Lewis. “It’s quite different from preparing for an event with a much shorter timeline, such as a hurricane.”
They also looked at ways to pass on accurate, timely, and useful information to the general public, while still addressing the possible issue of false rumors and information emerging during the years leading up to an impact.
“These exercises are invaluable for those of us in the asteroid science community responsible for engaging with FEMA on this natural hazard,” said NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson. “We receive valuable feedback from emergency managers at these exercises about what information is critical for their decision making, and we take that into account when we exercise how we would provide information to FEMA about a predicted impact.”
Study and planning for a possible asteroid impact continues
NASA’s continuing to provide expert input to FEMA about the asteroid through the Planetary Coordination Office. The partners will continue to assess the asteroid and conduct asteroid impact exercises in preparation for a worst case scenario. They also intend to start reaching out to other representatives from local and state emergency management agencies and the private sector in future emergency exercises.
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