Joint Asteroid Emergency Planning Exercise

While the odds of a large asteroid hitting the earth are low, it could happen. The federal government tasked FEMA and NASA to plan a response if such an event appears likely. The two agencies sponsored a multi-agency planning exercise in El Segundo, California in October 2016.

The agencies had sponsored two previous exercises, and the Associate Administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, said that it’s a matter of “when we will deal with such a situation.”

Planning for such a low-probability, but high-consequence scenario helps emergency managers be better prepared to plan their response in the face of such a massive threat.

Planetary scientists studied the simulation of a large fictitious asteroid striking the earth in 2020. While previous exercises simulated deflecting the asteroid so it wouldn’t hit the earth, this simulation precluded the possibility of doing that. Thus, emergency management officials had to plan how they would notify the public and evacuate the area predicted to be in the path of the asteroid.

Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, said that these types of exercises are invaluable for asteroid scientists to learn what information would be critical to emergency managers. Knowing this lets these NASA scientists prepare for how they would provide information to FEMA about a potential impact.

In addition to FEMA and NASA, a number of other agencies took part in the simulation exercise:

  • The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • The US Air Force
  • The Department of Energy National Laboratories
  • The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services

FEMA and NASA will continue to conduct these types of asteroid simulation impact exercises, but they intend to expand the group of participants. In addition to the private sector, the agencies plan to include additional state and local emergency management representatives.

While we can hope that the probability of an asteroid hitting the earth remains low, it is good news indeed that planetary scientists are working hard to prepare for such a scenario.


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