NASA released a report Thursday outlining the federal government’s response in the event that an asteroid or comet flying through space should ever impact Earth. “The National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan” shows how the U.S. federal government would protect and prepare the planet for such an event, and outlines five strategic goals for reducing the risk of an impact.
The first goal is to enhance Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, tracking, and characterization capabilities, in order to increase the response time the U.S. (and all of Earth, really) would have if something came our way through space. And the unidentified flying objects vary greatly, from objects larger than a kilometer to items as small as a softball, but many with the potential to devastate.
The second goal of NASA’s plan is to improve NEO modeling and prediction. This will let various government agencies better simulate the impact risks should a comet crash into the planet.
Goal number three is perhaps the most exciting part. The NASA report says it will develop technologies for future deflection and disruption missions.
This action includes preliminary designs for a gravity tractor NEO deflection mission campaign, and for a kinetic impactor mission campaign in which the spacecraft is capable of either functioning as a kinetic impactor or delivering a nuclear explosive device. For the latter case, the spacecraft would contain all systems necessary to carry and safely employ a nuclear explosive device, but would carry a mass simulator with appropriate interfaces in place of an actual nuclear device. Designs should include reconnaissance spacecraft and methods to measure the achieved deflection.
Frankly, this sounds a lot like the plot of the 1998 Bruce Willis-helmed action movie Armageddon.
Goal four is to “increase international cooperation on NEO preparation.” Considering that many of the country’s closest allies are bristling against the treat of a trade war, this goal may be a harder sell than you would normally expect. But when an extinction-level event is bearing down on the planet, who’s going to hold a grudge over a steel tariff?
The plan’s fifth and final goal is to routinely run through NEO impact procedures, including practicing the action steps with foreign governments.
According to the action plan, implementing these five goals should improve the U.S. preparedness for NEO impact within the next 10 years — if an asteroid doesn’t get us first.