What Can We Do If an Asteroid Threatens Earth? Europe Starts Planning

Object Over Russia
Trail of the object that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013. (Image credit: Alex Alishevskikh CC BY-SA 2.0 via http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexeya/)

What should humanity do the next time a space rock threatens Earth? European officials recently spent two days figuring out possible ways to respond to such a scenario, with the aim of drawing up effective procedures before the danger actually materializes.

The first-of-its-kind simulation considered what to do if an asteroid similar to, or larger than, the one that exploded over Russia in February 2013 — which was about 62 feet (19 meters) wide — came close to Earth. Officials focused on activities ranging from 30 days to 1 hour before a potential impact.

"There are a large number of variables to consider in predicting the effects and damage from any asteroid impact, making simulations such as these very complex," Detlef Koschny, head of near-Earth-object activities at the European Space Agency's Space Situational Awareness office, said in a statement. [Potentially Dangerous Asteroids (Images)]

"These include the size, mass, speed, composition and impact angle," he added. "Nonetheless, this shouldn't stop Europe from developing a comprehensive set of measures that could be taken by national civil authorities, which can be general enough to accommodate a range of possible effects."

Artist's conception of an asteroid near Earth. (Image credit: ESA - P.Carril)

The 2013 Russian meteor explosion, which occurred above the city of Chelyabinsk, helped to bring the asteroid threat into a new realm of public awareness. The shockwave created by the airburst injured 1,500 people; the vast majority were cut by shards of flying glass after windows were shattered.

The European authorities performing the new simulation, which took place in late November, took a lesson from the Chelyabinsk event, determining that it would be best to warn the public to stay away from windows and stay in buildings' most secure areas — similar to the advice given during tornadoes.

Officials considered what to do if Earth were threatened by an object between 39 feet and 125 feet wide (12 to 38 m) traveling at 28,000 mph (45,000 km/h). ESA and related warning agencies would need to work quickly, they determined, and coordinate with civil protection authorities to give information about where and when the asteroid would likely strike, and what effects would be anticipated.

"For example, within about three days before a predicted impact, we'd likely have relatively good estimates of the mass, size, composition and impact location," Gerhard Drolshagen, of ESA's near-Earth-object team, said in the same statement. "All of these directly affect the type of impact effects, amount of energy to be generated and, hence, potential reactions that civil authorities could take."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace