Here is how NASA plans to guard Earth from asteroids and comets

The large impact craters that characterize our planet are impressive reminders that asteroids and comets hit the earth from time to time. As has often been said, it is not a question of “if”; It is a question of “when” our planet will face an imminent attack from space. But an impact is an existential threat that humanity is finally starting to take seriously and start thinking about.

Seemingly spurred on by the success of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), NASA has just released a new planetary defense strategy and action plan detailing its efforts to find and identify potentially dangerous objects in order to provide advance warning and them then even repel impact track.

This 10-year strategy aims to advance efforts to protect Earth from a devastating encounter with a near-Earth asteroid or comet.

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“An asteroid impact on Earth has the potential for catastrophic devastation, and it is also the only natural disaster humanity now has sufficient technology to completely prevent,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, in a press release of NASA. “The release of this NASA strategy reinforces NASA’s intentions for the next 10 years to ensure the agency works both nationally and internationally to protect our planet for the good of all.”

The 46-page NASA Planetary Defense Strategy and Action Plan (pdf document) was released on April 18, 2023, and follows another document released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on April 3, “National Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan for Near-Earth Object Hazards and Planetary Defense” (PDF document.)

Each of the reports focuses on improving the detection, characterization and response to impact threats, as well as improving international collaboration to coordinate strategies between government agencies.

NASA plans to focus on six key areas for planetary defense over the next decade:

  • Improving the study, detection and characterization of NEOs to work towards a complete catalog of all NEOs that could pose an impact threat to Earth
  • Development and demonstration of NEO mitigation technologies similar to the agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, the world’s first planetary defense test mission that successfully demonstrated a method of asteroid deflection using a kinetic impactor spacecraft
  • Promote international collaboration related to NEO surveying and mitigation to leverage international capabilities
  • Strengthen interagency coordination between NASA and other US government agencies to improve and streamline the US government’s NEO preparedness and response planning
  • Review agency internal planning to maximize use of limited resources
  • Better integrate planetary defense work messages into agency strategic communications

Each of the strategy goals is broken down into short-term, medium-term, long-term and rolling timelines, with the goal of achieving all goals within the next 10 years.

The Near Earth Objects (NEOs), which NASA believes are the most important, range in diameter from 10 m (33 ft.) to over 10,000 m (33,000 ft) and reach a radius of 42 million km (30 million miles) around the earth orbit way.

NEO size and danger. (Source: Johns Hopkins University / Applied Physics Laboratory)

For decades, scientists and other advocates have argued that humanity must prepare for what is certain to happen at some point. Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who helped found the non-profit B612 Foundation for the Defense of the Planet, has spoken to Universe Today numerous times about defending the planet. As early as 2010, he emphasized that the technology to deflect an asteroid already existed.

“That means we don’t have to go into a big technology development program to deflect most of the asteroids that would pose an impact hazard,” he said. He added that coordination and collaboration between countries around the world are essential and perhaps even more difficult to organize than technology.

“Bureaucracy is the most likely reason we’ll be hit by an asteroid in the future, not technology,” Schweickart said. “That’s a bold statement, but if we get over it and do our job right, we should never in the future be hit by an asteroid that could threaten life on Earth.” And it’s going to be a hell of a challenge.”

This image shows NASA’s NEO Surveyor compared to an infrared observation of a star field made by the agency’s WISE mission. NEO Surveyor is the first purpose-built space telescope that will advance NASA’s planetary defense efforts by finding and tracking dangerous near-Earth objects. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Of course, finding the NEOs that may be on course for our planet is crucial. Such a mission is now officially on course. The Near Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor mission is a space telescope designed to detect near-Earth asteroids as part of NASA’s planetary defense efforts. The FY2023 Omnibus Spending Act enacted in December directed NASA to spend no less than $90 million on this mission, and it is expected to launch no earlier than 2028.

The DART mission was an important milestone in addressing the need to test ways of deflecting an asteroid. On September 26, 2022, DART rammed Dimorphos, a 530-foot. Asteroid Moonlet nearly 7 million mi. from Earth and successfully demonstrated a kinetic impact strategy to redirect a NEO onto a course to hit Earth. Dimorphos poses no actual threat, but was chosen for the test because it and its larger parent asteroid, Didymos, could be observed from Earth before and after the encounter to gauge the effectiveness of a kinetic impact.

JWST captured this sequence of the DART collision on Dimorphos. Courtesy of NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI.

“As we saw with the success of the DART mission, NASA is committed to protecting Earth from potentially dangerous asteroids and comets,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Planetary defense benefits all of humanity, and NASA’s strategy and plan of action outlines how we will continue to protect our home planet over the next decade.”

NASA says the release of this action plan is an important step forward to ensure DART’s momentum, and the upcoming NEO Surveyor mission will continue to advance to protect the Earth from potentially dangerous NEOs for generations to come.

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