First announced by the space agency in 2016, the Planetary Defence Coordination Office is part of NASA’s Planetary Science Division to plan against possible life-ending events. Their job is to catalogue and track Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO) such as asteroids and comets. But the team is also running simulations should such a threat slip through unnoticed, to study the possibility of diverting a space rock, while also looking at the consequences if one does hit in the future.
YouTube channel “Wired” revealed the details of the project on their page last year.
Presenter Robbie Gonzalez said: “In Washington DC there’s this thing called the Planetary Defence Conference, which is actually going on.
“Scientists there are laser-focused on figuring out one thing, how to dodge an asteroid that is currently hurling directly at Earth.
“Here’s the thing, that asteroid is not real.”
I use supercomputers to model what happens when an asteroid or a comet hits the Earth
The team are using supercomputers to play-out numerous outcomes in the hope it will help better prepare them for the future.
Cathy Plesko, who is in charge of watching over some of these scenarios, explained why the project is so important.
She said: “I’m a planetary scientist at Los Alamos and I use supercomputers to model what happens when an asteroid or a comet hits the Earth and how to stop one.
“Just like you have a fire drill or when you sit down on a plane and they tell you about the oxygen masks, we practice this every two years.
“We learn from practising, we learn from our mistakes.
“We are doing this now because this is the first time we have really been capable of doing this and we’ve been buzzed a few times.”
Dr Plesko said much more work is needed before NASA is confident they can deflect an asteroid.
She added: “You can’t deflect a tornado or a hurricane, you can’t glue a fault shut to stop earthquakes.
“But with an asteroid or a comet, it looks like we are pretty much there.
“There is some technology that needs to be developed yet, a few things we still need to learn about how these objects are composed and how they respond to being hit by a kinetic impactor, or being ablated by a nuclear device, or shot with a laser.
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“We still need to study that very carefully, that’s why we’re doing a lot of this on the computer. because if it goes sideways, I can push delete and go home for dinner.
“It’s better to do the homework before it’s an issue.”
Asteroid 101955 Bennu, formally known as 1999 RQ36, is a Potentially Hazardous Object listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale.
Investigators have already warned the space agency that it could be devastating if they do not act.
According to a study by scientist Maria Eugenia Sansaturio, the 1999 asteroid may impact the Earth.
Dr Sansaturio warned in a report for the Solar System journal Icarus that there is a good chance of the asteroid striking.
She told Universe Today in 2010: “The total impact probability of asteroid 1999 RQ36 can be estimated as 0.00092, approximately one-in-a-thousand chance, but what is most surprising is that over half of this chance (0.00054) corresponds to 2182.”
However, NASA has a less destructive move for Bennu.
The space agency is currently running a mission with its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to find out more about the rock.
The spacecraft spent two years chasing Bennu down, before orbiting it for another two years and taking samples.
Then, in 2023, it will blast back to Earth to allow scientists from around the world to study it.
The mission team is particularly interested in learning the role that asteroids like Bennu – dark, primitive and apparently carbon-rich – may have played in creating life on Earth.
It will also help scientists to refine the odds of a strike on Earth.
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