12:46 GMT16 January 2021
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    Scientists and emergency managers convened in Washington, DC for the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference to participate in a biannual asteroid impact exercise, testing humanity’s response to a possible impact event.

    Despite a simulated eight years of preparation to their credit, scientists and engineers participating in the latest exercise tried but failed to deflect the killer asteroid, as it left New York in ruins.

    The week-long role-playing game puts participants in various situations requiring them to coordinate their actions if it is determined an asteroid impact is coming.

    During the exercise, participants only receive daily updates on changing conditions or events, and are expected to rise to the challenge of reacting to these updates and coordinating an international response to the impact event.

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    The exercise is prepared and run by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and the US Federal Emergency Management Agency as a means of exploring possible countermeasures to safeguard against an asteroid hit, and should a killer asteroid hit Earth, what our response would need to be.

    Although entirely fictional, the drill adheres as closely as possible to what a perceived real threat would look like. The scenario begins with astronomers establishing that a specific unknown near-Earth asteroid has a one percent chance of hitting the Earth during its closest approach in a determined year.

    The one percent chance of impact is the agreed trigger point when the international community would need to launch a coordinated real-life response to the threat. Subsequently, humanity has eight years to prepare, but little is initially know of the asteroid other than its orbit, its speed, and that it is roughly 100 to 300 metres long, for example.

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    The potential damage caused by the impact of an asteroid this size is more or less known since other meteor impacts have occurred, like the Russian Chelyabinsk meteor impact in 2013, and the suspected meteor responsible for the Tunguska event in 1908.

    This provides the context for the scientists and emergency managers, with the participants needing to consider feasible options for deflecting the asteroid, including space missions to be launched for any deflection plan they develop. NASA made the results of previous exercises available on their website, with the entire conference live-streamed on the European Space Agency's Facebook page and live-tweeted.

    In this latest edition of the simulation event, impactors were built, and the right launch window determined. Three impactors managed to hit the killer asteroid; the main body was deflected, but a smaller fragment broke off and continued on a deadly path towards the eastern US.

    Although Washington considered sending a nuclear bomb to deflect the 60-meter rock in a repeat of last year’s successful tactic that saved Tokyo in the simulation game, political disagreements ruined the day, and New York was devastated by the impact. Paul Chodas, the NASA engineer who is the game's designer, told AFP the fictional killer asteroid is, of course, "highly unlikely," adding they nonetheless wanted relevant issues to be exposed and discussed.

    Astronomers at the conference took the opportunity to defend the NeoCam space telescope project, which would help scientists better identify asteroids and react earlier to threats. Chodas hinted at the possibility that it will be Europe's turn in the line of fire at the next simulation exercise hosted by Vienna in 2021.


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    Asteroid Impact Exercise, deflection, asteroid collision, space mission, simulation, space, Planetary Defense, NASA, European Space Agency, New York, US, Washington
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