Killer asteroid obliterates New York in planetary defense simulation exercise

Eight simulated years of prep wasn't enough for scientists to deflect the killer asteroid successfully.

After wrecking the French Riviera in 2013, destroying Dhaka in 2015 and sparing Tokyo in 2017, an international team of scientists and disaster response experts took to New York to gauge how well prepared the city is to deal with a killer asteroid heading their way.

Experts from the liked of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, ESA’s Space Situational Awareness group, and the International Asteroid Warning Network huddled up at the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference in the final week of April for an asteroid-attack simulation. The purpose behind this bizarrely necessary exercise was to test humanity's readiness to face the catastrophic threat of a killer asteroid. By the simulation's end on Friday, New York was in ruins (figuratively speaking).

The exercise has become a biennial event in the global "planetary defense" community.

The drill played out over multiple days, but the real simulation was over eight years — which is, on average, the amount of time we might get in warning as a killer asteroid comes flying the way of Earth in real life.

Artist's illustration of asteroid impact on Earth.

Artist's illustration of asteroid impact on Earth.

But even eight simulated years of preparation weren't enough for scientists and engineers to deflect the killer asteroid successfully.

The simulation was in the form of a game, designed by a NASA aerospace engineer. The killer asteroid was roughly 100 to 300 meters in diameter and had a one percent chance of hitting Earth on 29 April 2027 as per rough calculations. Every morning, some 200 scientists that participated in the exercise were fed with updates as the fictional asteroid zipped towards New York.

As fictional months went by in the simulation, the likelihood of impact rose from 1 to to 10 percent, and eventually to 100 percent. In the simulation, NASA sent a probe in 2021 to examine the threat up close. Astronomers confirmed by December the same year that the asteroid was headed straight for Denver — almost certainly destroying it in the process. The world's space powers — United States, Europe, Russia, China and Japan — joined forces to build six "kinetic impactors" —  probes that would strike the asteroid to deflect it from its Denver-bound trajectory.

After three years of building and waiting for a good launch window, three impactors hit the asteroid successfully. The bulk of the asteroid was diverted away, but smaller fragments that broke off still continues on its deadly path, heading for a different part of the US. Once the impactors tried and failed to bring the threat down to a minimum, there was nothing left to do but brace for impact.

The energy of simulated asteroid impact was roughly 1,000 times the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It destroyed everything in a 15-kilometer-"unsurvivable"-radius, according to the scientists present. Windows that were as far as 45 kilometers away were shattered and other damages stretching as far as 68 kilometers from the epicenter, according to an AFP report.

Perhaps better strategies and some hope for our survival could come out of the next Planetary Defense Conference, scheduled to take place in Vienna in 2021.

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